By Alison Riley
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. May has been gaining recognition by many faith communities as an important month to reach out and connect with members in a different way. Mental health is a complex issue, influenced by a variety of factors. Religious and spiritual affiliation can be an important protective factor for mental health, helping to decrease stress by creating feelings of connectedness, community and unity with the larger world.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 57.8 million adults (20% of the U.S. population) experienced some form of mental illness in 2021. It is also extremely costly to our society, with some estimates that it costs our U.S. economy $193 billion in lost earnings each year. According to the 2021 Mental Health America (MHA) report, Idaho is ranked 39th out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of overall mental health status – meaning there is still a long way to come to support those in need in our communities.
Despite being common afflictions, Idaho ranked 50th out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in regards to overall ranking for mental health, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). They looked at many factors including prevalence of mental illness and rates of access to care. This low ranking may be due to the stigma associated with mental illness, as well as a lack of access to qualified clinicians to help treat them. While psychiatrists and psychologists are expected to increase in the state, as of May 2021, Idaho had under 150 psychiatrists and 700 psychologists statewide.
Some view mental illness as a personal flaw or believe that seeking help is a sign of weakness, yet would never judge a cancer patient or person with diabetes as weak for seeking professional support. Most individuals do not put their mental health crisis in the hands of a psychiatrist or therapist; therefore, it is important for all individuals to learn about mental illness in the same way they would learn about the signs of diabetes or a heart attack.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, increased social isolation, financial insecurity and health concerns created many challenges and stressors worldwide. The pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health in the United States, with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse being reported. Mental Health Awareness Month is a time to be brave in conversations with friends and family. It is far more likely that you will notice something wrong sooner than a medical professional, and you can be the first step to them getting the help they are most likely not getting. All it takes is a conversation.
There are many things that can cause an individual to be more likely to experience an episode of mental illness, including traumatic experiences, genetics and poverty. Women are more likely than men to experience mental illness, as well as racial and ethnic minority groups, those living in certain geographic areas and those who identify as LGBT+. The most common mental illnesses are anxiety and depression. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses, affecting approximately 31.1% of U.S. adults at some point in their lives. Anxiety disorders include common phobias, such as the fear of snakes, as well as social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder. There are a variety of successful treatments available, including medication, therapy and even virtual reality treatments.
Major depressive disorder affects approximately 20 million adults (8.4% of the U.S. population) in a given year. Fortunately, living in Idaho offers a protective factor against depression, with the rate of Idahoans reporting a major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year at 30.2% of adults, compared to 32.3% of adults in the U.S.
One of the greatest impacts of depression is suicide. The CDC finds that the overall suicide rate increased 30% between 2000 and 2020. The suicide rate in Idaho is higher than the national average. In 2020 there were 23.2 suicides per 100,000 people versus the national average of 13.5 per 100,000 people. Suicide is a symptom of major depressive disorder and is treatable with quality interventions. Crisis hotlines like 988 and the text hotline 741741 are helpful, but simply asking directly if you suspect someone may be suicidal can save a life. It does not put the idea in the person’s head or make them more likely to hurt themselves. It shows you care and can create a conversation that may create a lasting impact.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, it is important to seek professional help from a qualified mental health provider. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great resource and has classes and support groups. You can help fight the stigma by advocating for mental health support in your community, being vocal and proactive about your own mental health needs and encouraging fellow members of the community to get the help they need as well.
Faith communities are on the front lines of being able to intervene and create a less stressful world for us all. Leaders in these communities are attending trainings about mental illness, creating a supportive culture internally, and providing resources and a sense of connection.
Alison Riley, LCSW, is a therapist and the owner of Therapy Boise. Therapy Boise is a virtual mental health clinic that supports Idahoans of all ages, including couples and families in their path towards wellness. Reach out at [email protected] or (208) 261-1157.