Moving from Mental Health Awareness to action

Eleven years. That is the average delay between the onset of mental illness symptoms and receiving medical intervention.

As executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) DuPage, that statistic is a source of great frustration and disappointment. In those 11 years, there is ample time to veer off a healthy life path — be it dropping out of school, losing jobs, entering the criminal justice system, grappling with substance use disorders, or becoming estranged from family and friends.

So much damage can be done — and much of it may have been prevented with proper education, support, and treatment.

Historically, most of the delay could be attributed to stigma, the lack of awareness about mental illness, and the limited availability of resources.

Today, we have less stigma, more knowledge, and more resources, but the global focus on mental health since the pandemic may have some unforeseen and unintended consequences that could perpetuate delayed intervention.

A concern that many of my colleagues and I share is that mental health terms have become very generic, which can diminish the gravity of a diagnosis.

For example, we often use the words stress and depression to describe mild anxiety or brief disappointment such as “I was stressed when I couldn’t decide what dress to wear, or which movie to watch” or “I was depressed when the Sox lost, or when my phone broke.”

When someone says they are stressed or depressed, do they mean a minor and temporary situation as described above, or are they talking about not leaving their apartment for a month, drinking until they pass out, or even suicidal ideation?

Without asking questions, it may be impossible to know whether the terms are merely an exaggerated figure of speech or are truly a cause for concern.

Imagine how it feels to be the person with clinical depression who can’t get off the sofa because his feet feel like cement shoes, and his friends tell him they had depression too when they couldn’t get tickets to Taylor Swift’s ERAS Tour …

Another overused and overly broad term is “self-care.” Taking care of oneself is important for both physical and mental well-being. However, self-care is not a replacement for medical intervention when one has a mental illness.

Getting a massage or going to the gym are certainly positive activities that can make us feel better, but they are not a substitute for psychiatric care, therapy, support groups, or mental health classes that teach skills necessary to manage mental illness.

One of our staff members recently shared that he spent many years going to the gym thinking that is what he needed to improve his mental health. While he became physically healthier, his untreated mental illness worsened. Again, the time between the onset of symptoms and treatment averages 11 years, and how much of that time is spent on self-care when “real care” is needed?

Unfortunately, the misidentification of any positive or endorphin- producing activity as mental health support, is becoming more commonplace in youth programming.

Too often, parents enroll students in athletics, camps, teen centers, music programs and the like thinking that is the answer to improving mental health. Although those activities should be supported by our communities as they are important to social/ emotional development and skill building, they rarely address the needs of the estimated one in five teens with mental illness, two-thirds of whom receive no treatment.

I would suggest that if the youth program does not offer substantial individual/group mental health support by appropriately trained staff, mental health screenings, or mental health education, it is not a “mental health program.”

There is a fundamental difference between just feeling better/happier temporarily and making an impact on mental health. (Otherwise, Disney World would be seen as the greatest mental health institution in the world!)

Let our take-away for Mental Health Awareness Month be to move from awareness to action when we suspect something is wrong with the health of our loved ones. Don’t assume that because your child is busy that they are mentally healthy. Don’t assume that if your child says they are stressed or depressed, there is nothing seriously wrong.

Don’t assume that your child is doing well because no one from your child’s school, after- school program, or sports team called you. We wouldn’t wait 11 years to take our child to the dentist if we thought they had a cavity, so why are we delaying mental health care?

Parents frequently tell me that they saw signs of mental illness in their child years before a diagnosis. Sometimes, they chalked it up to “just being a teen or tween” or that their child would be fine if they just found more friends or an activity they enjoyed. Others were afraid of what a diagnosis would mean — for their child and their family.

People with mental illness can lead full and productive lives if they develop skills to manage their illness and have the necessary supports. It is rarely easy, but the sooner one gets treatment, the better the outcomes can be.

Awareness is the first step on the road to recovery. Don’t wait 11 years to act. The clock is ticking …


For almost 40 years, NAMI DuPage has been providing free and low-cost mental health programs and services, including support groups and classes for individuals and for families, mental health workshops and trainings, a peer workforce training program, a Living Room (alternative to the ER for those not in need of hospital services), partnerships with area police departments, special programs and services for those involved with DuPage courts, services at area hospitals, recreation programs, and more. But NAMI DuPage’s largest program is its youth program where more than 15,000 students from grades 5-12 participate in mental health education classes. In addition, NAMI DuPage offers workshops on relevant topics for youth, a weekly teen support group, and will soon be offering programs for coaches and scout leaders to help them in identifying youth who may be struggling with mental health issues. NAMI DuPage is also exploring the possibility of opening a teen drop-in center and Living Room at a second location in DuPage County

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