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Recently, everyone from President Donald Trump to British Prime Minister Theresa May has been talking about the toll on society that stems from mental health problems. Around 18% of Americans suffer from a mental illness in any given year, and many of them get no help at all with managing their symptoms or working towards recovery. Politicians who express concern are often slower when it comes to allocating resources, and many charities in the sector are stretched to the limit. What can be done to help? Can ordinary people get involved? Is there a positive way forward?

mental illness

What is mental health?

We still don’t know the cause of many kinds of mental illness, so definitions are always changing and many common symptoms can develop for a variety of reasons. The American Psychological Association tends to focus on the symptoms themselves rather than the causes. In this framework, a mental illness is defined by the fact that it directly produces psychological symptoms that make it hard for the sufferer to function in day to day life, cause distress, or make that person a danger to self or others. These are, after all, the real reasons why people need help and support.

Neurodivergence and learning disorders

Slightly different from mental illness because they’re present from birth are neurodivergent variations like autism, where the brain operates in a slightly different way from most people’s, and learning disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. These phenomena tend to be expressed to varying degrees in different people so that some can get by well in mainstream society while others need intensive support and care throughout their lives.

Supporting young people

Some mental illnesses first develop in childhood, and in those cases, it’s imperative to provide support early to reduce the risk of serious lifelong problems developing. That means schools need to be alert to the signs of mental illness, provide counseling services and be prepared to work closely with psychiatric specialists where appropriate.

Ohio-born entrepreneur Keith Krach, now Chair of DocuSign, founded the Children’s Autistic Network when he became aware of the shortage of resources available to support young people on the spectrum. Using leadership experience picked up from General Motors and the Rasna Corporation, he sought to ensure that autistic children would also have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Challenging stigma

One thing that everybody can do to help people with mental health problems is to challenge the stigma surrounding them.

One thing that everybody can do to help people with mental health problems is to challenge the stigma surrounding them. Acts of aggression are frequently blamed on mental illness – often inaccurately – and this makes many people wary of being around mentally ill people when the fact is that such people are far more likely to be harmed themselves because of prejudice than they are to harm anyone else.

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Challenging stigma starts with challenging our tendency to pull away when a friendship becomes hard work because someone is anxious or depressed. It also means calling people out on hostile or misleading statements about people with illnesses like schizophrenia, and interrupting them if they mock people experiencing panic attacks or struggling with phobias. Taking the time to educate people can save lives.

Changing workplace culture

Many people with mental illnesses struggle to hold down jobs or find themselves getting more ill when they do so due to hostile workplace cultures. Untreated workplace stress is a major cause of serious mental health problems. Employers need to recognize that a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and a willingness to give stressed employees time off for recovery will help them to retain talented employees, increase employee loyalty and reduce the overall number of lost work days.

Improving access to treatment

Affording suitable treatment can be difficult for people with mental illnesses, and there is still concern about the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, on which many depend. There are also other barriers for many – for instance, some helpful drugs make people forgetful, so it’s difficult for them to know whether or not they’ve taken them. Although technology is starting to help with this, nothing beats having a friend or relative there to provide support.

Providing refuge

When medication doesn’t improve the situation, it becomes necessary for some people to seek refuge in institutions dedicated to supporting them or helping them recover from their mental illnesses. It’s vital that institutions like these are adequately funded so that they can provide a kind and effective service. Anybody can help with this by putting pressure on funding bodies and making sure politicians know that institutionalized people who cannot speak for themselves are not forgotten.

Today, most mental illnesses can be alleviated to some degree and will go away in time if the right support is there. You can help to make sure that this happens.

Ben Chapman