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Op-Ed: Mental health awareness is slowly increasing in the U.S.

By Holly L. Walters     Sep 3, 2015 in Health
A stigma has long been attached to mental health issues, but according to a new study, American attitudes and levels of understanding regarding this topic are finally starting to shift to a more progressive direction.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) recently conducted an online survey to determine how adults in the U.S. currently view people who have a mental illness. Despite the perceived stigma that still causes many sufferers of a mental illness to take steps to hide their condition, the survey indicates that 89 percent of Americans believe that mental health is just as important as physical health.
An even larger percentage of respondents stated that mental health services should be included in basic healthcare plans because they are an important component of each person’s overall health and wellness.
This is great news for the estimated 42.5 million American adults who are currently dealing with some type of mental illness. Additionally, activists are now in the position of being able to utilize ever-increasing awareness of mental health issues to begin a potentially more constructive conversation about the correlation between this topic and gun violence.
In the past, many people were concerned that visiting a counselor or other mental health professional would be seen by society as a sign of weakness. Viewpoints regarding mental health are continuing to evolve, and the latest survey numbers show that 38 percent of Americans now take the opposite approach by viewing getting help as a sign of strength.
Concerns about the cost and availability of counseling were made clear by the people who responded to AFSP’s Mental Health and Suicide Survey. In fact, 43 percent believe the cost is too high, and 31 percent fear that people in need are unable to access the necessary services.
Although the AFSP did not get into factors such as recent gun violence, it is easy to make a correlation between these concerns and the prevalence of shootings that have been carried out by people who appear to have been afflicted by an untreated or undertreated mental illness, including James Holmes, the man who gunned down 12 people at a movie premiere of "Batman" in Colorado. After all, if access to mental health services were easy to find and affordable, it is possible that there would be fewer violent incidents such as the theater shooting.
Sadly, even as a greater understanding is being developed at a national level, there are still many people who are negatively impacted by existing stigmas. A prime example of this was showcased in the survey’s findings that approximately 50 percent of U.S. adults believe that they have some type of mental health issue, but only 38 percent of respondents have sought help for their condition.
Women are still more likely than men to openly discuss having a mental health problem, and this is troubling because men have the highest suicide risk. As of 2013, 77.9 percent of all Americans who commit suicide are male. It is also worth noting that all of the recent mass shootings that have involved a mental health issue were committed by a male perpetrator. Therefore, it is clear that there is still a long way to go toward helping men feel comfortable enough to reach out for help.
Opinions on mental health in general are moving in the right direction, but there is still a lot of room for growth when it comes to the topic of suicide. Although 18 percent of Americans indicated that people have the right to commit suicide and 48 percent recognize that it is a way to escape pain, there is still enough stigma for 59 percent to view people who take their own life as selfish, weak or cowardly.
Until we can break through these stigmas and stop attaching them to people with a mental illness, it will be difficult to get many suicidal individuals to open up about their feelings before it is too late. The survey itself points out that 13 percent of adults living in the U.S. are unwilling to reach out to anyone if they develop suicidal thoughts.
Overall, it is clear that beliefs regarding mental health are moving away from negative stigmas, but there is still a long way to go in order to provide an environment that will help people in need. This increased level of awareness has the potential to impact everything from election results to the suicide rate, but it is still necessary for an increased focus to be placed on educating the general public about the reality of mental illness.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Mental illness, Mental Health issues, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, james holmes
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