We are in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month, a month dedicated to promoting education, understanding, and compassion for the many ways mental illness affects us, our loved ones, and our communities. One goal of this month is to help people understand that they don’t have to suffer silently or suffer consequences in their lives due to their symptoms, and that there are multiple ways to receive help. Furthermore, increasing awareness helps to reduce the stigma around all forms of mental illness and addictive behaviors. Mental Health Awareness Month is also a month focused on sharing the many ways in which we can promote mental health in all of us. With this broad context, it seems intuitive why mental health awareness should be a priority, particularly those affected by addictions.
One component of mental health awareness is having accurate knowledge. We may hold a notion of what a mental illness or mental condition is all about without really knowing how it is accurately diagnosed or treated. We may have preconceived notions based on our various experiences and exposure. Furthermore, our knowledge may be outdated, as the medical and psychology fields may revise their thinking about diagnosis and treatment over time. Education will help ensure we are speaking the same language, have an accurate handle on how widespread the issue is, help someone who is suffering, and find ways to prevent the issue, when relevant.
Let’s discuss Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and mental health. Under current diagnostic criteria (DSM–5), a person is diagnosed for AUD when he or she meets any two of the 11 diagnostic criteria during the same 12-month period. Depending on the number of met criteria, the severity of the AUD would be classified as mild, moderate, or severe. Recent estimates suggest that nearly 30% of Americans will suffer from AUD in their lifetime and that 13.9% have been affected by AUD in the past year. This represents many individuals, and those affected tend to be disproportionally male, white, or Native American. One finding from this recent national study on over 3,600 American adults is something to reflect on: less than 20% of interviewees who met diagnostic criteria for AUD at some point in their lifetime had received treatment of some form for alcohol use. Phrased another way, the majority of people who have been affected by AUD have not received treatment to address this issue.
Often one mental illness or condition is associated with other conditions. For example, AUD is associated with a variety of other forms of problem behaviors, including other addictions, and other forms of mental illness. In this same recent study, the researchers found that those who met criteria for AUD also experienced other substance use disorders, some personality disorders (antisocial and borderline personality disorders), Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and some anxiety disorders. It often happens that problem drinking develops as a way of coping with challenges, including managing mental health.
Mental Health Awareness Month, represents a time to open our eyes, ears, and minds. This allows us to openly discuss the importance of living our lives the best we can to help ourselves and others feel good mentally and emotionally. There are many ways to be mindful of mental health. All of these actions can be done throughout the year.
Offer compassion or assistance to someone who is struggling. Talking about mental illness and mental health builds understanding and compassion, opens our minds to the experience of others, and reduces stigma.
Get outside in nature, exercise, talk to a friend, play with your dog, volunteer, or do whatever promotes feeling good. The list of activities can be endless. Being active helps you recharge, refocus, or redirect your energy during stressful or challenging times.
Some of these warning signs include: changes in behavior patterns, loss of interest in usual activities, withdrawing from others, changes in relationship patterns or interest in relationships, and of course any comments made that seem out of character, whether directed toward others or toward oneself. When you recognize warning signs, check in with yourself or with the person you care about. It may not seem like you know exactly what to do, but know there are many resources available that are devoted to education and support.
Even if we are not naturally comfortable talking about it, mental health and mental illness are a part of all of our lives and affect all of us. When we adopt the perspective of being open and aware, and facing our fears head-on we will be making a significant step forward toward reducing stigma, ending suffering, and removing barriers to receiving care.