As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who has worked as a therapist with Josiah White’s and Compass Rose since 2018, I was asked as a professional in the field to write a post about Mental Health Awareness month and its importance. To be honest, though, I’ve never really thought much about Mental Health Awareness month because for me every month is Mental Health Awareness month. Because of this, I did some research about the month and its history. Surprisingly, I found out May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness month since 1949. Wow, have we come a long way since then! 

Since 2008, Mental Health America has chosen a theme each year to help the general public learn more about how to better take care of themselves and their loved ones. This year’s theme is “More than Enough.” This theme resonates with me because of the work we do with our kids at Josiah White’s and Compass Rose. Almost every kid we serve comes to us carrying the weight of the story “I’m not good enough.” I imagine you’ve found yourself carrying that story or something similar before too. I know I have. The true gift of being a therapist is being able to sit with others as they begin to unlearn this story and break the chains that hold them back. 

Mental health challenges come in all different shapes and sizes. Some people are born with chemical imbalances that cause a lifetime of challenges with things like Depression, Anxiety, Bi-Polar Disorder, Schizophrenia, or ADHD. Others have either acute or chronic traumatic experiences that lead to symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is far more common than most people realize and is incredibly varied in its presentation. Others have a combination of genetic and environmental factors that lead to disordered personality features, which can often be confusing both to those afflicted and those in relationship with them. Still others find themselves with mental health challenges that only present for a season due to life changes, medical issues, or even changes in the seasons (Talk to me in January in Indiana and I will tell you without a doubt that I am DEPRESSED.)

One of the common factors in all of these situations is that not a single one is cured or helped by invalidating them, pretending they don’t exist, or telling yourself or someone else that their experience is inaccurate or to “just get over it.” THIS is where I think the true importance of this month comes in. Well-intentioned people, often parents, without knowledge and resources of mental illness can do and say things that are hurtful and delay those suffering from getting the help that they need. 

I truly believe that everyone is doing their best with what they know and when we know better, we do better. So if you’ve found yourself not knowing how to respond to someone with mental illness, here are a few tips to hopefully help you approach mental health concerns with more thoughtfulness and efficacy. 

If you are suffering from a mental health issue yourself: 

– Approach yourself with kindness and don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Talk to a trusted friend – You will probably find that people relate to what you are struggling with more than you think and everything feels more manageable when you are not alone. Mr. Rogers said, “What is mentionable is manageable, and everything that is human is mentionable.”
– When you are ready to try therapy, Psychology Today is a great resource for finding a therapist in your area.
– Coping skills like journaling, square breathing, exercise, and progressive muscle relaxation can help in moments of stress.
– Pick up one of hundreds of books about mental health that can help you understand what you are experiencing and what you need (Two of my favorites are Changes that Heal by Dr. Henry Cloud and Try Softer by Aundi Kolber.)

If someone you love is suffering from a mental health issue: 

– Don’t try to fix them. This is tempting, especially for parents, but you will not be able to take this away from them immediately and that’s likely not what they’re looking to you for anyway. Instead, focus on helping them to know they are not alone and that you love them no matter what.
– Check-in – Don’t be afraid to be upfront about what someone is going through. Often, especially with heavy topics like suicidal ideation, we worry that we might make it worse by bringing it up, but it’s likely that the person is thinking about it anyway and will find comfort in being invited to express freely with a safe friend or family member.
– When you do talk about any mental health concerns with someone, practice validation (convey that the person’s experience is significant and not to be dismissed) and empathy (the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another). DO NOT blame or shame someone for their experience, especially if what they are sharing is vulnerable for them.
– Educate yourself about their specific illness. Provide help when you can but remember to set limits to take care of yourself too. It is not your responsibility to make them feel better. Put your own oxygen mask on first.
– In an emergency situation, refer them to the Suicide Hotline (988) or in the case of someone causing significant harm to themselves or others, call 911.

If you find yourself to be having difficulty knowing how to have healthy emotional separation from someone with a mental illness or addiction, groups like Al-Anon and CoDependents Anonymous are wonderful resources for support. 

In keeping with 2023’s Mental Health Awareness Month theme, repeat after me and tell yourself and your loved ones that you are “more than enough” and need not carry the shame that comes with the stigma of mental illness!

– Lauren Sowers, MA, LMHC, Compass Rose Academy Therapist