By Wendy Bailey
Executive Director, Mississippi Department of Mental Health
In Mississippi, one of the most powerful forces preventing someone from seeking mental health treatment is stigma – the negative perceptions and misconceptions someone may have around a subject. Those misconceptions may make someone less likely to admit when he or she needs help, or seek available treatment. Seeking help for our health conditions, mental or physical, is a sign of strength, and the beginning of recovery.
This May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and is a great opportunity for Mississippians to eliminate stigma experienced in themselves and in their communities. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has developed three steps to become “Stigma Free.”
Educate Yourself and Others
Learning about mental illness helps to dispel the myths that lead to stigma. Mental illness is a health condition just like any other, and is not the result of personal weakness or a character flaw. Mental illness is treatable, especially if addressed early. Stigma causes individuals or families to sweep symptoms under the rug, which may allow the condition to worsen and become more difficult to treat. Getting help at the first sign of mental illness gives you the best pathway to achieving the life you want for yourself.
See the Person, Not the Condition
One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. Each of those individuals is a person, with families and communities of their own. In Mississippi, we’re known for supporting each other and our communities, and that should include times of mental distress. Sharing encouraging thoughts or affirming someone getting treatment for mental health helps everyone feel more comfortable reaching out for help.
The reality is that mental illnesses often are treatable at home through outpatient services in the community—even intensive cases like psychosis. The goal of community-based services is to provide the mental health treatment that is needed while supporting individuals with things like housing or employment that help people live full, satisfying lives in the community. In Mississippi, these intensive community services serve all 82 counties, and are strategically deployed where data demonstrates the highest need. When they are needed, hospitals are there to provide inpatient services, but our goal is treat each person individually so they can remain in their homes and communities.
Taking action to help break stigma around mental health can be something small: gently steering a conversation at church or at work away from gossip and towards support. You can talk to local and state elected officials about the effects of mental illness on your families, and ask what policies officials are supporting to help those struggling with mental illness.
A Journey Towards Hope
A mental health diagnosis isn’t the end of life as you know it. It’s the beginning of hope: a journey towards recovery. Community Mental Health Centers and other providers are available across the state. Community Mental Health Centers serve every county in Mississippi, and offer a variety of crisis and therapeutic services. For those with difficulty paying, funding is available to offer services at low or no cost.
It takes courage to admit to yourself that you may be living with a mental illness, and it takes strength to reach out for help. Hope is here in Mississippi — be strong for yourself and your loved ones, and take the first step.