I’m writing today as a member of a typical American family. We love living in Greenville, surrounded by wonderful friends from school, church and the community. My family is typical in another way also, because one of us has a mental illness. About 26% of Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. That’s about 1 in every 4 Americans.
Brain disorders, like bipolar disorder or anxiety, affect the brain’s messaging system — which in turn affects behavior. Most of these illnesses strike in adolescence — making school, work and sometimes even daily tasks difficult or almost impossible. Twenty-five percent of mental illness begins by age 14, 75% by age 24. These illnesses are really a young person’s disease — but we don’t think about them that way because the average time between the onset of symptoms and when people seek treatment is 11 years. Why?
The answer is stigma. Can you imagine blaming someone for getting cancer or kidney disease? We don’t blame those with Alzheimer’s or heart disease for their illness, yet there is a great deal of blame, shame and fear surrounding diseases like depression and schizophrenia. No one asks for mental illness and it isn’t caused by something that you do. You just get sick. Early detection and treatment are key parts of recovery.
Of 50 states, South Carolina ranks 44th in terms of access to mental health care. Many counties do not have even a single psychiatrist. Even in Greenville, getting help is often difficult.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. One of the strongest advocates for helping those who live with brain disorders and their families is NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI Greenville’s mission is to support, educate and advocate — and to end the stigma of having a mental illness. The brain-body connection is undeniable — and our health care system should reflect that truth.
If you have a friend or family member who is struggling with a brain disorder, don’t give up! Don’t hide it or be ashamed of what you are going through. That plays into stigma and only strengthens it. Reach out to NAMI Greenville and you will find resources and learn that you are not alone.
Show your support for mental health on May 20 at NAMIWalks Upstate. NAMI Greenville and other NAMI affiliates will walk to celebrate the power of the human spirit and the need for change.