by Nina Rifkind, LCSW, ACS
mental health awareness

Since 1949, May has been known as Mental Health Awareness Month.  Each year, when May is over, I wonder why we’re not encouraged to be aware of our mental health all year, every year, just as we are for our so-called physical health. Given all we know about the effects of anxiety and depression on our bodies and immune systems, this question is vital.  As Harvard Health pointed out in 2008, “Anxiety has now been implicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions.” These conditions are no joke, so why don’t we take mental health more seriously?

The answer, in part, can be a lack of understanding and sometimes fear.  Both are reflected in the way we routinely belittle mental health, as part of our daily lexicon.  How many times have you heard “I literally had a panic attack”, “She’s so bipolar”, or “He’s a little OCD, ha ha”?  If you’ve never struggled with a mental health issue, you may not give these phrases a second thought.  Those who do struggle, can get the message to battle in silence, given a lack understanding and compassion for their situation.  This is particularly true of the most vulnerable in our midst, teens and tweens, who are often dealing with emerging mental health disorders. 

Two of my adolescent clients with OCD, recently shared frustration about their Health Classes, in separate schools. Both teachers initiated discussions about people who are “a little OCD.”  These conversations lacked any clinical information about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  For these clients, OCD meant twice the time to complete homework, up at night cleaning the house, and disturbing, unwanted thoughts of harm coming to their parents.  Their teachers missed a valuable opportunity for kids to learn about the true complexities of a mental health issue.  This type of casual discussion can reinforce the notion that these are not serious concerns, with possible physical ramifications, if left untreated.

Just as we seem immune to comments about OCD, we can be equally detached from commonplace phrases like “worry wart”, “wallflower” and “scaredy cat.”  All of which minimize the effects of living with untreated Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder and Specific Phobias. When we trivialize these issues, we throw them in the category of personality traits, to the realm of annoying quirks, without the possibility of change, rather than life altering issues, that are highly treatable with the proper help.

As mental health professionals, individuals who fight every day to manage symptoms, and those who love and support them, we can work to slowly turn the tide.  By sharing with people, we trust.  By gently, and thoughtfully educating our doctors, teachers, spiritual leaders, family and friends, we can make those around us more sensitive, and aware, all year round, of the importance of how we all talk about mental health, and how critical it is to our health in general, mind, body and spirit.  

About the Author

Nina Rifkind_0.jpgNina Rifkind, LCSW, ACS, Owner, Wellspring Counseling, Denville, NJ. Nina Rifkind is a licensed clinical social worker, practicing in Morris County NJ for almost 20 years. She specializes in treating Anxiety Disorders and OCD, in people of all ages, particularly connecting with adolescents and young adults. Bringing the most current, evidenced based treatment to her clients is a priority. 

I am 40 years old and I have suffered with depression all my life and more recently with anxiety. I was properly diagnosed with depression when I was 22 and I have dabbled on and off antidepressants since then. In my experience they were largely ineffective if not non existent in terms of helping my depression. Over the years I had to deal with a lot of difficult life situations which pushed me further away from being mentally healthy and on two occasions in the last 10 years I got to the point where I was ready to die largely because I felt like I was going to have to endure this unforgiving condition for ever and that wasn't something I didn't want to and also didn't deserve to have to endure. I'm a good person but depression and anxiety don't discriminate. But both times that suicide was on the table I couldn't go through with it purely because my mum suffers the same as I do and I couldn't do that to her in spite of how much I wanted to. After the second time I decided if I wasn't going to kill myself then I needed to fix it. So I have spent the last 4 or 5 years doing as much research on human psychology, some philosophy, self help books and a lot of self analysing to try and find out primarily what makes me depressed and how I can help it but with the idea that if I can help myself then maybe I could help others. As for what I have learned about myself and what I think depression changed in me compared to healthy people is that I think my ability to feel pride has been impaired. I am not talking about understanding the concept of pride unfortunately that is still just as active sometimes even more so but what I mean is the chemical reward we receive as a result of the achievements we acquire. It is non existent as far as I can tell. The reason I was able to be aware of this is in part due to the wonderfully insightful book by Johhan Harri called lost connections and the reference to the power of empathy. Since that revelation I have become quite good at cultivating empathy from television and films which in part has relieved some of the pressure of my depression and through some good life choices I am in a much better place now,I can even bring myself to even admit to myself that I am happy which is rare for me, but it also allowed me to see how the other half live. Honestly I'm a little jealous but I am what I am. I understand that everyone is vastly different in general but also to do with mental health issues and i can only see my own experience so I have an open mind in this regard. I also think that mental health awareness should be a constant concern but my fear is that it will just become (hashtag mental health awareness) and end up being as important as pour a bucket of cold water over yourself or downing a pint of beer which would be a shame. I think that it is important to give people specific things to be aware of and not just generalizations. I'm not absolutely sure how or where to attack this but I am ready to give it a go despite my many fears. I guess I am looking for a bit of a sounding board for my ideas and hear someone else's opinion other than my own. I think that if I am correct in what I think there is a potential depression epidemic a round the corner with the current model in our society with capitalism and consumerism taking us away from what made us the remarkable creatures we are which is working together and caring about each other. Personally I think it's time for a change! Would love to hear your thoughts please be as honest as you can, for me its about finding a way to make things better however we do it

HI Johnathan I hope you don't mind but I was just reading your post from November and couldn't help but feel a little inspired by your courage and positivity in finding an alternative way of tackling the issue. I would love to read that book by Johhan Harri ? I have struggled all my life with various issues, dissociative identity, low self esteem and too many things to go into but I just can't relate to anyone and feel that any one can relate to me
I feel that this is a selfish way to see things and that my problems and trauma is infintismal compared to many but I struggle to keep these feelings away and they are with me constantly and relentlessly. Anyway I really do think that what you're saying really resonates with me, so thank you for your courage in talking about this.

Vincent L Taylor

November 27, 2019

Its about time that we as a society identify and counsel those who make fun of mental health problems especially those who think only "weak" suffered from these problems. According to webinar, I attended at E-Care Behavioral Health Institute. Months worth of treatment can be void by just one wrong phrase said by some strangers.

I am trying to make mental heath awarenes i am going on bbc radio friday and in local papers to talk about mental heath

Hi there! I was just wondering if anyone could tell me when this was published? I would like to use it as a source for a speech!

Great article but mental health awareness is on October 10th and not May . But I do agree that it should be year-round most definitely.