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Mental Illness Awareness Week: Building understanding and conversation in our community

Ryan Quist, Ph.D., Sacramento County Behavioral Health Services Director

As a community, we’ve faced a number of challenges and hardships over the past two years that have had very real impacts on each of our own mental wellbeing. From concerns over personal health and safety to dealing with the very real impacts of isolation as well as global and local tragedy, these stressors are something we can all relate to.

These shared experiences have thankfully sparked some good. It’s led us to have more open and regular conversations about mental health and it’s helped to foster a new understanding about the need to support one another’s mental health and wellness. My hope is that this increased awareness about mental health conditions and the impacts of stigma surrounding mental illness continues to help normalize these important conversations, empowering more individuals and families to reach out for support.

While there are many experiences related to mental health and stigma that we share, it’s important to acknowledge that many other individuals and families, particularly those in underserved communities, experience these strains on their mental health more so than others. To be able to create a better future for our entire Sacramento community when it comes to mental health, it’s important for us all to understand how cultural and ethnic demographics intersect when it comes to mental health, stigma, and access to care and support.  

For me, I’m lucky to have my mother as a role model in my life – she’s taught me the value of reaching out and supporting my fellow community members. Recently, my mother shared with me that during the pandemic she was contacting widows within her church to check in on them regularly and ensure they had someone they could talk to. These types of small actions – simply starting a conversation – can have tremendous impact, especially in a time where we’ve been called to isolate ourselves. Human interaction and connection are key to our collective wellbeing as a community.

Coping and living with mental illness can be difficult, and unfortunately we aren’t all equipped with strong support systems, friends nor family to confide in. A strong support system can consist of trusted friends or family, as well as professional resources to aid, guide, and support our mental health journey. When these types of constructive supports and proper treatment are not provided or attainable, it drives some to depend on less functional habits of coping with their emotional pain, such as using alcohol or drugs. It’s important to keep an eye out for symptoms of excessive substance use not only in ourselves but in those around us. Often, properly addressing mental illness also involves addressing substance use challenges.

Here are a few ways you can support people living with mental illness during Mental Illness Awareness Week, and always:

  • Try these conversation starters – available in five additional languages – and lead meaningful discussions with family, friends or neighbors.
  • Check out these fact sheets to learn more about the signs of mental illness and the myths vs facts of mental illness. Both fact sheets are available in English and six additional languages.
  • Read a blog post from Stop Stigma Speakers Bureau member Alan Candee on National Recovery Month and his lived experience with mental illness. You can also read stories from the project’s Speakers Bureau to understand different experiences of living with, or supporting someone living with, a mental illness.
  • Invite a member of the Stop Stigma Sacramento Speakers Bureau to an upcoming event and/or meeting with your organization to share their personal experience in living with a mental illness.
  • Learn the signs to look for in someone who may be experiencing emotional pain by exploring the Know the Signs campaign. Share it with your friends and family to provide them with the tools that can help save lives and prevent suicide.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America for ways to improve mental health and increase resiliency.

If anything, the pandemic has certainly shown us just how resilient we really are. This fall, in recognition of  Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 2-8), the “Mental Illness: It’s not always what you think” project is working to remind all of us in the Sacramento community to continue having these discussions in effort to prioritize mental health. Mental illness is treatable, and recovery is possible when education, family, peer and community supports are available and used. As we recognize Mental Illness Awareness Week, it is important that we all continue to educate ourselves and others about mental health.