May 20, 2022

By Amy Payne

Diverse group of people
The other day, I was out at a restaurant, and I heard a table of people discussing high blood pressure. It started when someone said they had gone to the doctor that day and learned they had high blood pressure. Another person said, “I do too,” and named the medication their doctor prescribed. A third person at their table added that their father had high blood pressure, determined to be a symptom of heart disease — and now he is eating better and exercising.

There are more than a billion people who have high blood pressure. But did you know that there are almost a billion people in the world who live with mental illness?

So, why are we not hearing these dinnertime conversations about mental health?

Acknowledging The Presence of Mental Illness in Our Own Communities

The reason we don’t often hear conversations about mental health and mental illness is because many people are uncomfortable addressing the topic. It is normal to be concerned about, or even afraid of, things that are uncertain or unfamiliar. But if we take the time to learn about mental health, and the prevalence of mental illness, we will all feel more comfortable talking about it. Perspective is key.

To get a better understanding of how mental illness is present in our lives (whether we know it or not), I like to offer the following example: When you are in a public place or space you frequent often, like your church or a store, look around you. Statistically, one in five of the people you see may have dealt with anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions in the last year. Someone you may have seen every week for years may have mental illness, and you would not even know it.

Another way I often contextualize the mental health crisis is a little more striking: 767 buses. That is the number of buses (averaging 60 seats per bus) that it would take to hold the 45,979 people that died by suicide in 2020. Up to 90% of those people had diagnosable, and often treatable, mental health conditions. 

Understanding When We May Need Help

Another reason we don’t hear dinner-table conversations about mental health comes down to a lack of education and awareness. Many people experience mental health conditions, but often invalidate their own experiences, or are unaware that what they are experiencing is a symptom of mental illness.

I have heard people say, “Oh, I don’t have a mental health condition, I just have some anxiety,” or, “I’ve just been down lately.” Of course, some experiences consistent with mental illness are simply normal reactions to difficult circumstances, but at what point do these feelings become symptoms and signal a need for treatment? Education about when feelings and behaviors need medical attention will be a critical step in changing the conversation. More people will get the help they need when they understand their own bodies and minds.

Ultimately, we must remember that mental health is health. Mental health conditions, like high blood pressure, are treatable medical conditions. People with mental illness can — and do — live normal and very productive lives. A quick glance at the news will remind us of this; many successful CEOs, Olympic athletes, famous entertainers and prolific artists live with mental health conditions and continue to achieve their goals and find happiness. 

Encouraging The Conversation

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Let’s take it upon ourselves to learn the facts about mental health. Let’s challenge ourselves to examine our beliefs and educate ourselves.

I’d like to encourage people to use this awareness month to start a discussion with someone. You can start a conversation by saying:

  • “Hey, did you know that May is Mental Health Awareness Month?”
  • “Isn’t it staggering how many people are affected by mental illness?”
  • “Isn’t it unfortunate that more people don’t feel comfortable getting treatment?”
  • “Did you know that mental health conditions are medical conditions?” 

If we hope to move forward and reach a place where we no longer have to envision 767 buses of preventable tragedies, we need to make changes. Mental health conditions are treatable, and by shedding light on the realities of mental health and showing compassion, we can improve (and perhaps even save) lives! 

Amy Payne is the Executive Director of The Gathering Place, a peer-run recovery center in Green Bay, Wis. She is a certified peer specialist and mental health advocate who lives with the symptoms of her mental health conditions every day.


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