When it comes to mental illness, perceptions in Western New York aren't much different than elsewhere in the United States.
Members of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition found that out last year when they polled 400 county residents.
Slightly more than half said they wouldn't reach out for mental health resources or services because "People will think I'm not normal."
Six of 10 parents said they feared other children wouldn't play with their child.
And only one in four believed people who have a mental illness can get better.
Only about half of those questioned said they would be comfortable talking with a family member about a mental health concern, only four in 10 said they'd dare talk with a friend, and more than three in four were unaware about websites and other resources available to help with such concerns.
The Anti-Stigma Coalition was launched by 16 agencies and groups concerned about the way mental health is viewed in Western New York.
Why were the survey results troubling?
Coalition leaders point out that such stigma prevents people from seeking help, supporting others, and allocating resources more effectively.
Those leaders, along with the Mental Health Association of Erie County, also point out that such public perception flies in the face of these realities:
– An estimated one in five Americans lives with a diagnosable mental health condition.
– Virtually all mental illnesses are treatable.
It also comes with a punishing human toll:
– The Mental Health Association estimates that medical care for someone with a mental illness tends to run about 30 percent more than someone without one, and costs American workplaces up to $100 billion a year
– That those with serious mental illnesses die, on average, 25 years earlier from treatable diseases.
– And that it helps explain why it can take people up to 10 years to seek treatment for a mental health condition.
"Nobody would go through 10 years with a broken leg, but people do go five, 10 years having a mental health issue and not taking care of it because the stigma is there," said coalition chairman Max Donatelli, a retired Baker Victory Services counselor.
Coalition member Mike Telesco said the goal is to help people identify and address mental health needs, share the understanding that they can be hard to talk about, but work through the discomfort to help become part of a solution.
The sooner mental health issues are spotted, diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome generally, added Carol Doggett, another coalition member and senior director of marketing communications and outreach with the Mental Health Association. This is why there are growing connections between primary care providers and mental health professionals, including some practices offering behavioral health counselors in their offices.
"When you hear the term 'mental health,' people immediately assume you're sick," Doggett said. "No. You're working on your health and wellness. You can have a mental health diagnosis or a mental health condition, but you can be mentally healthy because you've learned to manage your condition. That's what we're trying to get across. A lot of people have something – but it's OK."
SYMPTOMS OF MENTAL ILLNESS
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) points out that each mental illness has its own symptoms. Common signs in adults and adolescents can include:
– Excessive worrying or fear
– Feeling excessively sad or low
– Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
– Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
– Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
– Avoiding friends and social activities
– Difficulties understanding or relating to others
– Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
– Increased hunger or lack of appetite
– Changes in sex drive
– Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
– Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight”)
– Abuse of alcohol or drugs
– Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
– Thinking about suicide
– Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
– An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
Those who want to learn more about improving mental health can visit letstalkstigma.org or call the Mental Health Association at 886-1242.