Mental Health and Mental Illness Awareness

With midterms just around the corner, it’s important to keep mental health in mind - and for more reasons than one. This week, from Sunday, Oct. 7 to Saturday, Oct. 13, is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Wednesday, specifically, is World Mental Health Day.

Although Congress declared the first full week in October as Mental Illness Awareness Week back in 1990, mental health is something that’s becoming more and more talked about in the media. A major goal of these types of days and weeks is to bring awareness to these causes and, especially in the case of mental illness, get rid of the stigma that’s attached to having one.

“Stigma is when someone, or even you yourself, views a person in a negative way just because they have a mental health condition,” according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI)’s StigmaFree website page.

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) is a well-known advocate for raising awareness about mental illness. “We believe that mental health conditions are important to discuss year-round, but highlighting them during Mental Illness Awareness Week provides a dedicated time for mental health advocates across the country to come together as one unified voice,” according to their Mental Illness Awareness Week page.

“Most of the efforts for mental health functions are to reduce stigma,” Marge Tortorella, the resource specialist at Mental Health America of Dutchess County, said. “Mental health is not looked at in the same way as...other developmental disorders.”

The fact is, millions of people live with a mental health issue. According to a Times Union article, “[o]ne in four people are diagnosed with mental illness over the course of a year in the U.S.”

Courtesy of:

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However, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding surrounding mental illness. Tortorella pointed out that people with mental illnesses are perceived as dangerous - she noted that when a crime happens, people often ask if the criminal has a mental illness.

Yet, many sources say that that’s a misconception. A February 2018 New York Times article analyzed 235 mass killings and found that only “22 percent of the perpetrators could be considered mentally ill.” The same article also cited a 2016 American Psychiatric Association book called “Gun Violence and Mental Illness,” which said that “mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent 1 percent of all gun homicides each year.”

Additionally, a 2017 American Mental Health Counselors Association article reported that “[p]eople with serious mental illness are rarely violent. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness.”

Tortorella continued on to say that people are often scared of those with mental illnesses, and families with people who have mental illness are afraid to talk about it.

Recently, New York has taken a major step to help both raise awareness of mental health and educate students about it. A law was passed in 2016, but recently took effect in July 2018, that requires all students in New York - from kindergarten to 12th grade - to be taught about mental health, as part of the curriculum.

“This bill calls on school districts to ensure that their health education programs recognize the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and the relation between mental and physical health in health education,” the memo said.

While Tortorella warns that we have to be careful in how we teach mental health, she thinks it’s a good step forward. There’s “much more stress in the world [these days and] stress plays an important part in the brain,” Tortorella said.

She pointed out that it’s important to educate students early, since “[c]hildren even in kindergarten or first grade have stress at home.” She noted that we live in a digital world and people spend a lot of time on the computer - especially kids. She added that there are also children whose parents often aren’t at home because they’re out working, and that can cause stress in little kids.

The Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc (MHANYS) was instrumental in getting this law passed. They even created the School Mental Health Resource Training Center, which is a MHANYS website dedicated to resources about mental health education in schools.

The goal of the Center is to help schools “comply with the required mental health education of students, identify resources and develop mental health lesson plans/curriculum, develop and implement a plan for professional development, establish community partnerships to support mental health education and services, [and] engage and support families.”

The New York State Education Department also has a couple of resources, including a one-page document on Mental Health Education Literacy in Schools: Linking to a Continuum of Well-Being. That paper sums up the most important parts about the new law and mental health.

However, there’s also a more thorough comprehensive guide. This one includes a lot more information, including the “New York State Framework for Mental Health Education Instruction,” found on pages 12-23. This details the mental health topics that students at certain grade levels should be taught, regarding self management, relationships and resource management.

New York has taken a significant step in implementing mandatory mental health classes for students in all grade levels. The only other state that teaches students about mental health is Virginia; however, not only is that requirement also new, but students are only taking such classes in ninth and 10th grade.

As Tortorella pointed out, if we can accept those that have a physical disability, we should be able to accept those with a mental illness. “Nobody asked for a mental health issue,” Tortorella said.

Caroline Chan Comment