The Importance of Mental Health Awareness

Tens of millions of American adults, and millions more youth, have experienced or are now experiencing the debilitating effects of a mental health disorder. In virtually every instance, individuals struggling with these conditions can recover and enjoy a substantially better life. Awareness of the high incidence of mental health problems is important. But it is even more vital that people know the truth about how effective mental health services can be, when a person is truly committed to changing their life.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. The very first observance was in 1949, which is surprising to learn since few people seem to know that Mental Health Awareness Month actually exists.

This lack of knowledge is disappointing and even a little bit alarming. The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that more than 50 million American adults are currently living with some type of mental health disorder. This represents 20.6 percent of the adult population. Meanwhile, according to a 2018 study more than 10 percent of children and adolescents ages 3-17 suffer from depression or an anxiety disorder, the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions.

The situation may be getting worse. Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control in February 2021 found that 41.5 percent of adults had experienced symptoms of depression or an anxiety disorder within the previous seven days. Among adolescents, 10 percent reported symptoms consistent with severe depression alone, a condition that increases the odds of suicide in the young by more than 1,000 percent.

The Covid-19 pandemic, and society’s responses to it, have disrupted people’s lives and made them more vulnerable to mental health problems. Anxiety and depression are predictable responses to highly stressful circumstances like this, especially when a definitive end is nowhere in sight.

Now more than ever, we all need to be aware of how pervasive mental illness is, and how rapidly it can develop when life becomes unpredictable and anxiety-inducing.

Signs of Mental Health Difficulties to Watch Out for in Your Loved Ones

You may be convinced that mental illness is a serious problem and that it is undertreated. You may be concerned that your loved ones are at risk, based on previous family history or present life circumstances.

But you may not be able to help if you don’t know how to recognize the signs of mental illness. Without this awareness, you may begin rationalizing or making excuses when the people you care about show signs of mental distress. Even if you eventually act, you may not act quickly enough.

Some of the clearest signs of a burgeoning mental health disorder include:

  • Frequent mood swings
  • Reclusiveness, social withdrawal
  • Disinterest in activities that brought pleasure and joy in the past
  • Impulsiveness, recklessness
  • Becoming easily frustrated, or becoming angry over small difficulties
  • Negative or pessimistic attitudes
  • Confusion, an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality
  • Sudden onset of addictive behaviors (substance abuse, compulsive gambling, constant Internet use, etc.)

One or two such symptoms may not indicate mental illness. But if you observe several of them, and their onset seems sudden or abrupt, there is real reason to be concerned.

Mental health professionals can diagnose and treat all types of conditions. If your loved one is in trouble and needs assistance, a mental health expert can have a dramatically positive impact on their lives.

The Connection between Untreated Mental Illness and Serious Social Problems

You should be aware that mental health disorders are a complicating factor in a broad range of societal ills. When no help is offered, these conditions will become even more destructive. Significant life troubles will inevitably follow, since mental illness affects every aspect of a person’s existence.

There are strong connections between untreated mental health problems and several serious issues, including:


Mental illness will interfere with social and occupational functioning. Individuals with mental health disorders who don’t get help will struggle to manage their lives and meet their daily responsibilities. If the situation continues to escalate, homelessness is one possible result.

A 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed that 25 percent of the country’s homeless were suffering from a severe form of mental illness. When the category was extended to include any type of mental illness, that figure rose to 45 percent. Substance abuse is also common among the homeless and often co-occurs with serious mental health issues.

Unfortunately, individuals or families who are homeless lack access to affordable healthcare and often have no social support. They need mental health care desperately, but without some type of intervention they are unlikely to receive it.

Substance Abuse and Dependence

Many studies have found that at least half of those who suffer from a mental health disorder also have substance use problems. Among adults who have a serious mental illness, including conditions like major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, one in four will have a substance use disorder as well.

The numbers appear to be even worse among youth. Adolescents struggling with substance abuse issues have an underlying mental illness about 60 percent of the time.

When a person suffers from a substance abuse problem and a mental health disorder simultaneously, it should be viewed as a medical emergency. Individuals who have this dual problem will require intensive, integrated mental health services that address each condition with an equal focus.

Crime Victimization

Individuals with mental illness are prone to becoming victims of crime and violence. One long-term study in Denmark found that men and women with mental health conditions were 50 percent and 64 percent more likely, respectively, to become crime victims. The risk for being a victim of a violent crime specifically was 76 percent higher for men and a stunning 300 percent higher for women.

There is a direct relationship between exposure to trauma and mental illness. Many of these terrible outcomes emerge from situations where abuse and violence is repeated over several years, in the context of an intimate or familial relationship of some type.

Even when people manage to escape from violent or abusive situations, they’re likely to need help for mental illness for quite some time. Without it, they will remain at risk for many negative life outcomes.

Hope is Just a Phone Call Away



Mental health issues increase the odds of being involved in criminal activity, either as the perpetrator or the victim. A 2015 Urban Institute report revealed that more than half of all inmates in state, local, and federal prisons had been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. Among women, the number was an alarming 73 percent.

Tragically, only a limited percentage of these inmates will get the medical attention they require. This means they will leave prison still suffering, and if they don’t get help quickly their chances of ending up back in prison are high.


Men and women with mental health disorders of any type are three times more likely to be unemployed than those with no such diagnosis. Among those with serious mental illnesses, the ratio rises to seven-to-one.

The struggles associated with untreated mental illness will interfere with job performance, or even prevent people from trying to find employment in some cases. In other instances, a lack of knowledge about the realities of mental illness can affect an employer’s willingness to hire someone who has a history of mental health difficulties. Some people will hide their mental health histories from employers, which can put their jobs in jeopardy if the news comes out later.

When mental health disorders are treated, those who have them can learn how to control their symptoms with great effectiveness. This would make them fully capable of handling a wide variety of jobs for which they have the proper skills or training.


Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. But it is the second leading cause of death among youth.

Suicide is not an act of desperation that can happen at any moment. Rather, it is the result of serious mental health issues that have not been addressed. A pair of meta-analyses concluded that as many as 90 percent of those who committed suicide had a diagnosable mental health disorder at the time of their deaths.

Somewhere between five and eight percent of people with a mental health disorder will ultimately choose suicide. On a global basis, just 1.4 percent of fatalities are the result of suicide. This means that a person with chronic mental health issues is four to five times more likely to take their own lives than someone with a different medical history.

Why Mental Health Care Is So Important

Beyond its devastating consequences for individuals and families, untreated mental illness exacts a tremendous toll on society. Mental illness is a problem that affects us all collectively, and challenges us to come up with universal solutions that can have a widespread impact.

Mental health disorders can and do respond to help. This makes the statistics all the more tragic, since bad outcomes are usually avoidable. Recovery from mental illness doesn’t happen overnight, but a person who enters a mental health facility with the support of their family and friends has an excellent chance of restoring their health and rescuing their future.

As a concerned family member, community member, and citizen, you can help spread the word about Mental Health Awareness Month. Increased awareness about the impact of mental illness won’t solve the problem by itself. But without expanded awareness, more comprehensive steps won’t be possible.

Once reality is acknowledged and the challenges it presents understood, the quest to overcome the devastating impact of mental illness can finally begin in earnest.