I didn’t know. Or maybe I didn’t want to know.
But when my son was diagnosed with a mental illness, I was forced to face something I hadn’t even believed existed. The silence surrounding these illnesses is akin to shame and blame.
Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior. They are sometimes referred to as the invisible plague because they are conditions that disrupt brain chemistry but cannot be seen except through behaviors.
Mental illnesses include major depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, anxiety disorders and others. They are physical and biological disorders of the brain, which scientists say start with genetics.
It is time we admit we have not cared enough to learn to separate the facts about mental illness from the myths. Myths abound regarding the causes: family dysfunction or bad parenting.
Not many people are even aware that the percentage of people with mental illnesses who are violent is no greater than the percentage of violent people without them.
Brains can get sick, just like any other part of the body.
“These illnesses have nothing to do with character flaws or a lack of will-power,” said Dr. Sam Keith formerly with UNM IDEAS in Psychiatry in an op-ed piece for the Albuquerque Journal a few years ago.
He reinforced the importance of education to confront the damage caused by the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. His words still ring true today.
Maybe, like me, you would never consider that someone in your family, or even yourself, could be diagnosed with a mental disorder just as readily as cancer or diabetes, or any other health condition. It affects all kinds of families, all kinds of people without regard.
Thankfully, the future holds hope for a more certain diagnosis with tools like brain imaging and treatments that can include medications, therapy, learned coping skills and a healthy lifestyle.
In this time of COVID -19 there is a need to increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions and suicidal ideation. New Mexico youth deserve the best support we can offer.
Many groups are joining together across the state to facilitate this kind of intervention and education in our schools and other youth-serving organizations. Suicide is the leading cause of death for ages 10-14 and the second-leading cause of death for ages 15-24, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s 2020 information.
One such educational program from Breaking the Silence NM is called “Talking Mental Health.” Its mission is to end the stigma, shame, silence and secrecy surrounding mental illness and suicide.
It is designed to facilitate dialogue between families, schools and students in New Mexico schools. Mental illness can be treated and prevented, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. Through connection and education, we can break down the negative stereotypes, so youth will not be ashamed to ask for help and get the treatment they need before it becomes serious, chronic or ends in suicide.
(Desiree Woodland represents Survivors of Suicide Breaking the Silence NM.)