Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mental Health Awareness Week: Can I Use the Word BREAST?

Mental Health Awareness week is October 3 - 9. Have you noticed that there are many, many people wearing pink in October for Breast Cancer Awareness month? Pink stays with us most of the year in one way or another because of the inspired breast cancer campaign. The breast cancer campaign has successfully led the way for many other campaigns including heart, diabetes, prostate cancer and others. Decreases in deaths from breast cancer are partially attributed to the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness, certainly with great contributions from the campaign. There are campaigns designed to do the same for mental illnesses. What are the similarities between the two?

First, let's make it okay to talk about mental illness. It is not an illness to be whispered about nor hidden between the generations and family members. Just like the word "breast" was once taboo in most environments, mental illness still has the power to make many people look away, turn away or at least feel very uncomfortable.

Early screening and knowing what to look for is the second critical aspect of these two campaigns. Just as we teach women to be aware of their own bodies and health, we need to teach all people to be aware of mental health conditions. And, we need to start very early. Parents and teachers should be knowledgeable partners in screening for emerging mental health issues and know exactly what to do and who to talk with if something is amiss. Our children should be taught about mental health just as we teach them about nutrition, general health and sex education.

Thirdly, just as with the breast cancer campaign, we should be talking about and teaching prevention. As with cancer, mental illness is not the "fault" of the person but there are things that build resiliency and help to prevent worsening of symptoms. These are quite similar to any prevention program: eat healthy meals, get the right amount of rest, exercise, have meaningful work or avocation activities, develop and maintain good friends, have a positive social life, and find some purpose either from faith or spirituality or commitment to something beyond one's self.

Finally, find the best treatment possible. Unfortunately this may be the most difficult to achieve. With treatment and support, mental illness is not the "sentence" it has been in the past. Recovery and stability is possible. The days when someone faced certain death from a diagnosis of breast cancer is no longer the case. The same is true with mental illnesses. We face huge challenges across the nation to assure treatment is provided for everyone with a mental illness. In Washington State the growing deficit has negatively impacted the most vulnerable. DSHS is slashing away at services for the mentally ill. What would you do if your mother was turned away from treatment programs if she had breast cancer?

We have a long way to go in treatment for the mentally ill, particularly those without strong family or advocate support. This fourth step is paramount to recovery. Mental illness affects the entire family and I know how priviledged my family is with the care that my daughter receives. Let us all turn to our family, neighbors, fellow employees and community and assure that mental health awareness and treatment is as readily available as a mammogram. To learn more check out NAMI's site. 


The Schimans said...

Excellent analogy, Cinda! I often think about how far the world of cancer has come from those days back in the 70's where no one spoke the 'C' word. We MUST keep the conversations going so that mental illness can receive the same level of support and awareness. Thank you for being that voice!!

Alexandra said...

I feel like a scrooge for not donating to breast cancer causes, especially since my mother had it 23 years ago, but it bothers me that no one speaks out for my cause. I don't get a ribbon or a t-shirt that says "Survivor" in whatever color represents mental health (I vote for purple).

Also, from a scientific point of view, the mortality rate for women with lung cancer is higher than that for breast cancer yet there are no hats, t-shirts, or fundraising runs for it either.

Just my two cents of frustration...

Anonymous said...

I REALLY feel you on this. It's been on my mind a lot. Why is my illness less "trendy"? Less worthy of support? Why not celebrate my survival?