The only time mental health is talked about on a national stage is following tragedy. Whether it’s a celebrity committing suicide, a mass shooting, or some other tragedy, mental health issues are used as a scapegoat for many problems. National pundits talk about how “crazy” or “deranged” someone is, and individuals will retweet numbers to suicide hotlines on Twitter, but few offer any real help. The silence isn’t due to lack of concern, for the most part, but from lack of understanding and education of what is really going on. Most individuals don’t know how to talk about mental and emotional issues. For many, it’s simply easier to just claim someone who hurts themselves or others is crazy, rather than taking the time to become educated on the topic. Education and empathy are prerequisites to solutions.
1 in 4 people in the United States will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. For many, mental health issues come and go like other ailments, and aren’t a lifelong condition. Treatment is definitely needed in the moment, but that doesn’t mean that anxiety or depression, two of the most common mental health conditions, are necessarily going to be there forever, sometimes only coming for a few months or years. For others, though, mental health challenges can be a lifelong battle, not unlike diabetes or an autoimmune disease. Unfortunately, more than 100 people every day lose their lives in their battle with mental illness in the U.S. Suicide has become the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, claiming nearly 45,000 lives in 2016, well over twice as many as were claimed by homicide that same year. Yet mental illness rarely receives any mainstream coverage, is a non-existent policy topic, and there are still many people that question its reality and/or severity. Millions are going untreated, undiagnosed, and stigmatized while mental illness is ignored by the masses.
As a suicide attempt survivor, I can attest that the only reason I’m healthy and thriving today is because I had access to medical professionals and a strong system of support that helped me dig at the root of my problems, and we’ve worked our way up from there. One cannot bring life back into a tree by pouring water on leaves or tearing off branches. One must water the soil and nurture the roots if there is any hope towards new life.
Mental health has only really been given any substantive notice within the last 20 years or so, and the U.S. has struggled as a community to come to grips with its reality. I’m about as old as society’s acceptance of mental health issues being understood as medical issues, which is terrifying as a 21-year-old suicide-attempt survivor. My struggle with mental illness has predominantly been a fight against stigma. But since I have been able to find many of the roots of my problems with the aid of experienced gardeners, I’ve nurtured some of those damaged roots back to health. Many don’t have that luxury, though. As hard as it is to imagine life without treatment for my mental health issues, there are tens-of-millions of children, teens, and adults that live every day without diagnosis, treatment, or hope for dealing with their problems.
Political activists across the board need to step up and take a stand on this issue, whether in the realm of policy or in practice. Between growing grassroots organizations, and strong, uniting voices, political activists are uniquely positioned to bring about real change and save lives. This problem goes beyond politics, and with the help of volunteers and inspired individuals across the country, there could be a day in the not too distant future where suicide rates actually start falling and where self-harm is not the norm for teenagers and young adults.
I’m not arguing for any particular bill or policy, which are secondary to cultural narratives. We must dig at and nurture our own roots and help others do the same, because no one can do it alone. Please consider donating to mental health organizations likethe National Alliance on Mental Illness,the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, The Trevor Project or any other mental health organization in your area. As individuals research and learn about the warning signs of mental health issues, and as universal love and compassion become the status quo, our communities will rise up together. Together, we can break the silence.