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It’s National Mental Illness Awareness Week, and, today (Thursday, October 11) is National Depression Screening Day.

Why is that important? Because millions of Americans are living with some sort of mental health condition. If you’re not, then you definitely know someone who is. Mental illness is so far-reaching that you would be hard pressed to find anyone within your close circle of friends and family who isn’t affected by it, either directly or indirectly. The truth is that it can be scary and overwhelming, and many people don’t want to “bother” their friends or family with their private “issues.” The thing is, people are dying to be heard and noticed.

Mental Illness has been such a taboo subject because of the stigma attached to it. Most people are uninformed, or ill-informed, at best. Many think that mental illness means someone is “crazy” or suicidal. A lot of times, this is simply not the case. Mental illness covers a vast spectrum from anxiety and OCD to eating disorders and PTSD to depression.

So what is mental illness?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.

Mental illness does not play by the “one size fits all” rule. And it doesn’t look a certain way because it’s not just one thing. It won’t present itself in the most obvious of ways either. It does not discriminate. It can affect anyone of any age, gender, socioeconomic class, race or religion. Although it can occur at any age, 75% of all mental illness begins by the age of 24, with half beginning by age 14.

Also, just because you’ve never had a problem before doesn’t mean you won’t ever.

Mental illness can present itself in many ways and be mild, only slightly interfering in daily life, or it can be so severe that hospital care may be needed.

Many people who have a mental illness do not want to talk about it because they feel ashamed. They feel as though they will be judged.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of! It is a medical condition. Would you be ashamed of cancer or indigestion? And, just like those medical conditions, mental illness is treatable.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that signs and symptoms of mental illness can vary, depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. If you think one of your loved ones may be dealing with a mental health condition, there are a few things you need to look for:

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Sex drive changes
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence
  • Suicidal thinking

Sometimes symptoms of mental health conditions can mask themselves as physical problems such as stomach or back pain, or any other unexplained aches and pains. Moreover, study after study is showing that our mental health DIRECTLY effects our physical health and that many mental illnesses may, in fact, be caused by physical problems like inflammation.

Mental illness is very real although it is unseen. It is important to note that there a few things you never want to say to someone who is living with the reality of mental illness. Mental Health America warns us to never say things such as:

  • “Other people have it much worse than you do.”
  • “Ever thought about how hard this is on the rest of us…”
  • “It’s just an excuse to be lazy.”
  • “You’re a kid, what do you have to be sad about?”

Sometimes it’s hard enough for people to come to a place where they can talk about their illness and reach out to those they love. They need to be heard by you. They need to have a safe ear and be in a safe place to talk. Don’t try to “fix” them. They aren’t broken.
There are a ton of resources available to educate yourself on the subject of mental illness. A good place to start is here. If you think someone you love may be having suicidal thoughts or tendencies, go here.