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Mental Health Awareness Month

by: Joanne Halt, M.A., NAMI FaithNet

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental illness is the generic term we use to describe many physical disorders of the brain. It is only in the last 20 years that we have been able to look at and study parts of the brain in real time and to develop effective medications for treating these disorders. Recovery is very possible today!

An estimated one in five adults or 68 million Americans will experience a mental health disorder in any given year. Ten million people or one in twenty-five people live with a chronic/serious mental illness which renders them disabled in some area of life. Twelve to twenty percent of recent military vets are returning with PTSD. There are 1 million attempted suicides per year and about 40,000 suicides per year succeed. Ninety percent of those who die by suicide have a mental illness so an untreated brain disorder can be a fatal condition.

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Current laws erect barriers to effective treatment for those with severe brain disorders. A recent survey shows that it takes a median of 8 years to get an appropriate diagnosis and proper medications and support services to assist with recovery. If this were any other medical condition we would be scandalized by the ineffective handling of these brain diseases. Stigma, fear of judgment, lack out of pocket finances for treatment compound the barriers to treatment. Underfunded programs prevent many from receiving help especially here in Florida which ranks 49th out of the 50 states in funding for mental health services. Sixty percent of those with a diagnosable mental illness remain untreated for these reasons. Many with brain disorders turn to alcohol or other substances to self-medicate, compounding the problems they face. One quarter to one third of those with severe, chronic mental illness become homeless as a result of barriers to care. The remaining percentage of those with severe mental illness who are not provided for by family, become incarcerated.

We can do our part by being a stigma-buster and by advocating for better laws. Very few people (about 1% according to American Psychiatric Association), had only a serious mental illness as the factor in committing acts of violence. In terms of mass killings with firearms, an analysis of 253 incidents, show 22% of the perpetrators to have an untreated mental illness. Untreated mental illness is a community health issue when we understand the financial and safety consequence for not doing preventative or early intervention. What message is conveyed when we treat these disorders differently than other physical disease? We offer to help cancer or heart patients by bringing food or offering rides but hesitate to do the same when a person is suffering a psychiatric disability. Fear of saying the wrong thing keeps many of us silent. Learn more about what helps and what hurts.

Let’s make it okay to talk about brain disorders. Reach out to the family that you know is facing this challenge. Offer prayers as a faith community. Spread the word about NAMI. National Alliance on Mental Illness ( is a grassroots nationwide organization composed of local affiliates. Those in recovery from mental illness and their family members, who have made this journey, volunteer and are trained to offer hope through education programs, support groups and advocacy. Our local family support group meets at St. Columbkille monthly during season. Check out or call (239) 337-9024 for further information on mental health locally. Take part in NAMI WALKS, a stigma buster and fundraiser set for September 29th. Remember, recovery is possible but it may take our support and encouragement to enable our neighbor to receive needed treatment.