With thousands of products from clothing to phone cases featuring the pink ribbons associated with breast cancer awareness, it’s hard to recall a time when the shame of cancer was so widespread people referred to it in whispers as the “c” word. History has it that when a woman called The New York Times in the 1950s to place an ad for a breast cancer survivors group, she was told “We can’t place such an ad because it uses the words ‘breast’ and ‘cancer.’”
Today, we still whisper about brain-based biological disorders, better known as mental illnesses. Yet, mental illnesses are more prevalent than cancer, impacting one in five Americans. Like cancer, much of what keeps people from talking about mental illness is fear and denial. While not a death sentence, as cancer was in the early twentieth century, a mental illness diagnosis can feel like a death—a dying of hopes and dreams of a productive and happy life. And, left untreated, mental illnesses can be life-threatening.
The shame of cancer ended with new research, better treatments and extensive education campaigns that focused on early detection and treatment. As people began to understand that cancer was no longer an immediate death sentence, the conversations became more hope-filled, and the shame ended.
For those of us in the mental health field, it’s hopeful to see a wave of new research with the potential for accurate diagnostic tools and more effective treatments. These advancements can help increase success in treating complex brain health issues. Like cancer in the mid twentieth century, today we are poised to end the shame associated with mental illness.
Campaigns to lessen the shame and stigma are abundant, but people are uncomfortable talking about mental health, even when talking to someone they know or love. A recent study by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute found that nine out of ten Texans think it’s harder to talk about mental health than physical health.
As part of its “Change the Conversation” campaign for Mental Health Month, NAMI Austin, the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has developed “conversation cards.” The two-sided cards are bright, colorful and full of facts that dispel some of the most common mental health myths. They also include a list of warning signs and tips on how to start a conversation about mental health.
As the cards point out, untreated or undiagnosed mental illness causes of 90% of suicides, the second leading cause of death in ages 15 to 24. This fact amplifies our urgent need to start talking about mental health, especially as young people experience increased levels of depression and anxiety.
With that in mind, NAMI Austin’s featured Mental Health Month event on May 24 is Hope Heals: An Evening with Kevin Hines. At age 19, Kevin survived a suicide attempt from a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, one of only 1% of people to do so. Kevin understands the importance of talking about mental health. His message of hope and healing is certain to inspire our community to begin those difficult, awkward but often life-saving conversations that start with “I’m worried about you. Are you okay?”
Twenty years from now, I trust we will add mental illness to the list of health issues that our communities once whispered about. It can begin today with a commitment to change the conversation around mental health, and the change will save lives.
By Karen Ranus, executive director of NAMI Austin. Click here to learn more about NAMI Austin’s conversation cards or details for Mental Health Month events. If you’d like to make conversation cards available in your office, faith community or school, email firstname.lastname@example.org.