May marked the end of another Mental Health Awareness Month.
From the Newtown, Conn. tragedy in December 2012, to the Oscar-winning movie Silver Linings Playbook and all the way through the DSM-5 controversy this spring, mental illness has certainly been getting plenty of attention in the news.
Spanning the horrific to the enlightening, from the uplifting to the nitty-gritty, these three cultural talking points alone have been reshaping America’s ongoing thinking about a frequently overlooked aspect of our general health.
Considered in itself (or in its partial absence, illness), mental health shapes the rest of our health. If one is off-balance emotionally — even temporarily — physical health can and usually does suffer.
A wise woman-friend once pointed out to me that disease stems from just that — “dis-ease,” essentially, in one’s way of being in the world. Thus impairment to behavioral ways of coping with stress or grief is intrinsically connected to bodily suffering.
That is why mental illness — and on the further end of the continuum, mental health and wellness — must be identified, understood together, and appropriately dealt with (not demonized). Mental illness affects one-quarter of the population at any given time, according to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health and multiple other sources.
Two decades ago, I worked as a vocational coordinator at a psychosocial rehab agency in Pittsburgh. We served the needs of mental health consumers (as they were professionally referred to) — a good many of whom had recently been released from two psychiatric hospital “catchman areas” (a fancy name for locational pinpoints). Some with severe schizophrenia had come out of two nearby state hospitals as well, but many were simply individuals dealing with major depression or borderline personality disorder.
They were looking for community and assistance with housing, work and disability concerns. Our agency provided all, in the form of a consumer baseball team, billiard table and other social gathering point essentials. It also provided particular help in transition housing, supported employment, disability applications and more.
I was charged with finding what was termed “competitive employment,” meaningful work, for those who came through the agency and were capable of it. Mostly I engaged in advocacy. It lay at the root of the agency’s mission.
Before I could get someone from staffing at Carnegie Mellon University to hear me out on the talents of particular individuals, I had to be a master stigma fighter. I learned fast and soon became passionate about it, for I saw myself and a larger society in the eyes of my consumers.
I was also fast learning (both on the job and off) that the absence of mental illness — that is, true mental health — must be striven for in order to achieve overall wellness and wholeness of body and life. My hope, entwined with my great pleasure in writing for Psych Central, is that society catches on to these facts sooner than later.