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A challenging season for those with mental illness

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The holiday season is a joyful time — packed with parties and traditions. But for millions of Americans living with depression, anxiety, addiction or other mental illnesses, the season can be especially challenging. According to a survey by National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 64% of those with mental illness say that the holidays make things worse. At this time of year, it’s imperative that we look out for friends, family and community members who struggle with mental health.

As of 2017, an estimated 17.3 million American adults had experienced a major depressive episode in the last year. Tragically, we’ve also seen a 30% increase in suicide rates in this nation since 2001. The problem is real and affects all of us, whether personally or through the lives of family members and friends.

In some circles, conversations about therapy have become more commonplace, but stigmas remain in far too many communities, especially when treatment includes anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, anti-psychotics or even medication-assisted treatment for substance abuse.

As a neuroscientist studying the brain biology of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, I am encouraged by the new tools and methods, and by available behavioral treatments, but these treatments are only helpful if people access them. Too often, fear of judgment and repercussions from peers, employers, clients, or family members cause many to avoid mental health services.

The holiday season is a perfect time to become an ally to combat mental health stigmas so people can get the help they need. We can all watch out for signs of mental illness and depression in friends and loved ones — including excessive feelings of worry or sadness that interfere with everyday life, extreme changes in mood, or suicidal thoughts.

All of us can play a role in decreasing mental health stigmas, caring for one another, and encouraging each other to seek out professional help when needed. In addition to one-on-one support, we can go a step further to create community-based forums to normalize these conversations and build support networks.

I recently hosted a town-hall-style conversation in which panelists shared personal stories about their mental health journeys. Attendees received input from mental health professionals and local resource groups. Many said they had waited for years to talk about these topics but had no place to discuss them — they also felt validated hearing from others with similar struggles. The conversation resonated, and attendees left better informed about resources for addressing mental health challenges.

This kind of respectful, honest and informative conversation can take place in communities across the country. These are conversations that individuals of all backgrounds can initiate by inviting community members and mental health professionals to come together in community halls, libraries, or places of worship to share their stories and expertise. 

As we shop, bake and gather for holiday meals, we should keep the mental health crisis in mind amid the hustle and bustle. Too many suffer in silence. In this season of charity, remember those who live with mental illness and resolve to be allies to fight the stigma in 2020.


Nii Addy is an associate professor of psychiatry and of cellular and molecular physiology at the Yale School of Medicine.

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