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Editorial - Attitudes toward mental illnesses need to change

Millions of Americans are dealing with mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder and other illnesses.

It's difficult enough to cope with those problems, seek treatment and try to get on the road to recovery, but other factors make it even harder. Some people unfairly place labels on those with mental illnesses, discounting them as abnormal, weird or unstable. Others treat them as social outcasts, avoiding them as if mental illness was some kind of contagious plague.

That kind of shaming and stereotyping must end. Now is a good time to start. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, health leaders and organizations across the nation are shining a much-needed light on those issues, including right here in Alexandria.

The effort points out that for many, getting help starts with a simple conversation, telling a friend, family member or someone else they trust that they believe they may be suffering from a mental health condition. They shouldn't have to feel that there is no place for them to turn.

As President Obama noted in proclaiming the National Mental Health Awareness Month, we need to make sure people know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. To find treatment services nearby, call 1-800-662-HELP. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers immediate assistance for all Americans, including service members and veterans, at 1-800-273-TALK.

It's important to realize that mental health issues also affect children. Research shows that trauma in childhood causes permanent damage to the brain and can result in enduring problems such as depression, anxiety, aggression, impulsiveness, delinquency, hyperactivity, and substance abuse.

The Village Family Service Center provided the following eye-opening statistics:

Young children exposed to five or more significant adversities in the first three years of childhood face a 76 percent likelihood of having one or more delays in their cognitive, language, or emotional development.

In a nationally representative survey of 12 to 17-year-olds and their trauma experiences, 39 percent reported witnessing violence, 17 percent reported physical assault, and 8 percent reported a lifetime prevalence of sexual assault.

In a 2011 national survey, 29.8 percent of young adults ages 18-25 reported having experienced a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder in the past 12 months.

In 2009, only 53 percent of young adults ages 18-25 with serious mental health challenges enrolled in postsecondary education, compared to 67 percent of young adults of the same age without serious mental health challenges.

Young adults with serious mental health challenges have higher rates of unemployment. A 2009 study found that nearly 50 percent of people ages 18 to 25 with serious mental health challenges are employed, compared to 66 percent of people the same age without serious mental health challenges.

Locally, the Douglas County Local Advisory Council (LAC) on Mental Health, continues to address mental health needs of adults and children in the community. The LAC promotes the reduction of negative stigma around mental illness and the development of respectful and competent treatment services for those with a mental illness and their families.

They organized a local walk to celebrate Mental Health Month and the community is invited to take part. It will take place on Wednesday, May 15 at 2 p.m. at Big Ole in Alexandria. Participants will walk to City Hall and then return to Big Ole. Water and cookies will be provided and participants will receive a free T-shirt. To order a shirt, call Julie at (320) 491-7134. For more information about the LAC, call (320) 762-3823.

Mental illness is a problem that warrants more understanding, awareness and action. It affects more people than you may think. About one in 17 people suffer from a serious mental illness. One in four adults suffer from a diagnosed mental disorder in a given year.

Think about what kind of community you'd want to live in if you ever became part of those statistics: One that stereotypes, name-calls and shuns, or one that understands, encourages and helps.