Changing the Conversation About Mental Health

Changing the Conversation About Mental Health

Our minds are one of the most powerful things about us. Everything from our physical health to our sense of belonging in the world is connected to our mental wellness. And yet, the conversation around mental health is too often surrounded in a cloak of silence.

Talking about mental health is the first step in overcoming the stigma that encompasses it. As we start to better understand the experiences of those whose lives are affected by mental health issues, we also start to build connections that help people live healthier, freer and less painful existences.

“Pain is pain” and it can be expressed in a variety of ways, says Nancy Burgoyne, PhD, chief clinical officer of The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Emotional pain and physical pain interact in ways that are complex and compounding. Anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders often show up as physical symptoms and can exacerbate medical problems.

And for many, mental health issues are a major part of life.

Almost 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness and distress in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). That’s 18.5 percent of the adult population — a shocking 43.8 million people. Of those, 9.8 million experience a debilitating mental illness that substantially interferes with their quality of life. Chances are, if you haven’t suffered from a mental health issue yourself, you know someone who has.

“There’s a belief that mental health problems are rare, and that people who suffer with mental health problems do so because they’re weak or come from bad families or are somehow defective,” Burgoyne says. “Those simple, highly shaming explanations are false.”

Negative, judgmental statements create a stigma surrounding mental health conditions that’s both unfair and destructive. Those who worry about how their mental struggles will be perceived from the outside are shamed into silence and, as a result, are less likely to get treatment.

But times are changing. Burgoyne notes that today’s young adults are seeking out mental health services more than ever before. This appears to be due both to an increase in the incidence of mental health disorders in this population and the reduced stigma of mental health disorders among younger generations, she says.

In this issue of Chicago Health, we explore some of the many fascinating angles of mental health in America, including increased efforts to change the conversation around mental health, the relationship between childhood trauma and mental wellness, innovative new treatments for depression, mental health among teenagers and the science of substance addiction.

Our cover stories seek to highlight not just unique facets of mental health disorders, but also the uniqueness of those who experience them.

The world around us is full of people with mental health conditions, many of whom are silent about the problems they face. By talking openly about the issues, we can reduce stigma and knock down barriers to ensure access to the mental health services that so many of us need.+