Why should we educate our communities about mental health challenges?

By Vanessa Klodnick, Ph.D, LCSW

When’s the last time you told your boss you needed to take a “sick day” because of your mental health?  Never, right?  This is a problem. Mental health struggles are incredibly prevalent and can significantly impact our capacity to thrive at home, on the job, and in the community. In some ways, we approach mental health problems much like we do physical health problems, we tend to (1) ignore them until they have substantially disrupted our life (and the lives of others who care for us) and (2) stop treatment after we start to feel better. Let’s be honest, how often have you really finished those prescribed antibiotics for your yearly onset sinus infection? Despite these similarities and the prevalence of mental health struggles in our society, having and coping with mental health symptoms continues to be a very stigmatizing experience for individuals- largely due to the fact that communities operate on harmful misinformation about mental health symptoms and treatment. We need to be able to openly discuss mental health experiences, including depression, anxiety, or irritability, with the same acceptance and understanding that we are able to discuss most physical health symptoms. Our lack of understanding and the stigma associated with talking about mental health struggles is truly a public health concern.

What we’re learning from research is that there are not only risk factors associated with the onset of serious mental health conditions, there are early warning signs that appear before the full-onset of a serious mental health condition. If these “warning signs” are identified early enough and treated by professionals, research suggests that the onset of a mental health condition that would otherwise developed into a lifelong struggle, can be prevented!  Although this is very exciting, it demands that people in the community can effectively spot these early warning signs and engage an individual (or their loved ones) in a conversation about what they are observing – and encourage them to seek mental health screening to assess if treatment is necessary. That’s a tall order given the stigma around mental illnesses that exists in communities, schools, and family systems.

To make any progress in the prevention of mental health conditions, we need to directly address stigma and be better about talking about mental health on a regular basis in our communities. In working with families who are coping with the recent onset of a loved one’s mental illness, we do a good job of emphasizing how mental health symptoms are no one’s fault.  But what we need to improve is in teaching society that the onset of a mental illnesses is also no one’s fault. We need to teach communities this fact, along with the early warning signs of mental health conditions that include:

  • Deterioration in work, school, relationships, and self-care and hygiene
  • Recognized changes in the way a person thinks or acts
  • Thinking that is disorganized, paranoid, or preoccupied with a specific topic
  • Decreased motivation and energy
  • Difficulties with memory and concentration
  • Changes in sleep and appetite
  • Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed

We need to especially educate students in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education settings who can help spot these early warning signs in their friends far before adults do, as well as provide easily accessible online screening and information portals for youth, families, schools, and communities. We also need to educate our state institutions, organizations, employers, and providers about the early warning signs of mental health conditions as well as the benefits to maintaining overall wellness. Young adult and family peers who have lived experience with overcoming mental health struggles are especially effective in community mental health education and outreach efforts.

Thresholds is deeply committed to educating the community about mental health and wellness. We host informal and formal discussions about mental health, conduct trainings and workshops, and provide technical assistance and consulting. This summer, Thresholds is launching MindStrong, a coordinated specialty care program for first-episode psychosis, as well as, a second team Emerge, which is a multidisciplinary service approach for ages 18 to 26-year-olds with mental health needs. Both of these teams will add to Thresholds community education and outreach efforts specifically around early identification and intervention.

Resources to bring Mental Health Education to your Community:

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Vanessa Klodnick, Ph.D, LCSW is a senior researcher at Thresholds & a NIDILRR Switzer Fellow. Her work focuses on developing effective interventions for vulnerable transition-age youth, including those diagnosed with serious mental health challenges. Dr. Klodnick provides technical assistance and consultation to providers and systems locally and nationally, as well as adjunct teaches at The University of Chicago and Loyola.

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