Despite years of campaigns and marketing, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health. This stigma is especially pronounced in communities of color and among people with constant financial stressors. All too often, many people see seeking help or getting help for themselves or their children as a sign of weakness. Sometimes, families are more comfortable with talking about addiction, behavioral problems, or even criminality rather than looking beneath the surface and talking about “why people do what they do.” All too often—based on what we know about how trauma affects behaviors and increases risk factors for substance abuse problems, health problems, mental health needs, academic problems and even relationship and employment problems—we rarely look at these things when looking at behaviors.
As a mental health provider who has worked for a long time in human services, I understand why many families find it difficult to acknowledge trauma and mental health needs. Sometimes you are referred to services because someone has said that you or your child is broken and needs to be fixed. Or worse, you seek out help, and you feel like you’re identified as a problem/pathologized. I have even heard of people who have sought support and had providers say that they feel overwhelmed by your stories, and then minimize the significance of our stories, and demonize us for our coping and survival strategies.
While there are many reasons not to get help, the reality is many of us deal with unaddressed and unresolved mental health needs. These needs show up in various and sometimes catastrophic ways. Read any paper, and you will frequently see signs of our unaddressed mental health needs. Those who study violent crimes have found that between 70 and 90 percent of those who commit the crimes have unmet mental health needs. In addition, a huge percentage meet the criteria for having posttraumatic stress disorder: problems sleeping, problems relaxing, problems managing emotions, being easily startled and having recurrent thoughts about prior violent experiences as well as always feeling on guard and having problems with relationships and addictions.
May is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month, and there will be events across the country on May 6. Check out SAMHSA’s website for more information: https://www.samhsa.gov/childrens-awareness-day. Many researchers have found that there is a direct connection between homicide and suicide for many children (especially male children) in urban communities. As many as one out of six youth in communities that have experienced a lot of community violence may meet the criteria for PTSD. Most of those children will never have these needs identified or have someone talk to them about their experiences. Homicide is now the second-leading cause of death for children, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for children. This is notable because while suicide rates have somewhat declined, the suicide rate for African American youth under the age of 13 continues to grow.
We have to do better to change these numbers. Doing better involves “seeing” the needs of hurting people, especially hurting children. We start by changing the way we look at problems. When we see signs that something is not “right”—excessive signs of anger, sadness, difficulty managing moods or problems with functioning at home, school or in the community—we should see those as a warning sign of need. Mental health needs are common. Having a mental health need does not make one weak, unspiritual or damaged. Mental health needs, like all health issues, are a combination of genes and experiences. And the more adverse experiences we have, the more likely we are to present with some mental health needs.
Also, if you see something, say something. We must be better at talking to our friends and loved ones about our concerns. We must stop normalizing unhealthy behaviors or, even worse, avoiding loved ones or talking about them behind their back. Not everyone needs to go to therapy, but many people need someone they can talk to authentically and personally about their hurts, experiences and needs in a nonjudgmental, empathetic and open way. Therapists are trained to do this, but these supports can also be found in a faith community, with an elder or in a group that provides you with support.
Finally, lead by example. If you know that you have had feelings of mental unwellness, seek support. In many of our families, we must be the change that we want to see. Go out and get your healing!