Let’s End the Stigma of Mental Illness Once and For All

[avatar user=”dponieman” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”http://www.acppps.org/who-we-are/diego-a-ponieman/”]By: Diego Ponieman, M.D. M.P.H.[/avatar]May is Mental Health Awareness Month; there is no better time to take it upon ourselves to end the stigmatization of mental illness once and for all.

Mental illnesses do not discriminate – they affect rich and poor, young and old regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in five adults in America experience a mental illness – from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to depression or anxiety – during their lifetime.

Despite its prevalence and the reality that it is a treatable medical condition, society continues to stigmatize mental illness. Culture plays a big role. In the diverse communities we serve at Advocate Community Providers (ACP) – African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics, among others – it is common not to seek treatment or even acknowledge the possibility of a mental illness.

It is estimated that 18.6% of African American adults, 16.3% of Hispanic adults, and 13.9% of Asian American adults in the United States live with some sort of mental health condition. However, only 6.6% of African American males and 10.3% of African American women seek out mental health services. For Asian American and Hispanic populations that number is even lower. Only 4.4% of Asian males, 5.3% of Asian females, 5.5% of Hispanic males, and 9.2% of Hispanic females have sought treatment.

The reality is that people call on their doctor when they don’t feel well. As a primary care physician, I treat many patients whose physical symptoms – fatigue, insomnia, muscle aches, stomach pain, among others – are manifestations of underlying behavioral health issues. It is now common practice for doctors to administer a depression screening as part of a routine visit. A positive score provides insight into the patient’s mental state and, if warranted, we can provide interventions or referral to a behavioral health specialist.

Recognizing that individuals with mental illness are far more likely to visit their primary care physician than a behavioral health specialist, ACP is working to integrate primary care and behavioral health services to provide a seamless, coordinated, and comprehensive experience for our patients. We are collaborating with a number of our community-based partners as well as with the New York City Department of Health to provide training and resources.

New York’s Thrive NYC initiative offers a wealth of valuable resources for providers and patients alike, including a “Top 10” for staying mentally healthy.

  1. Connect with others. 
  2. Play! Plan something fun!
  3. Ask for help.
  4. Take care of yourself. 
  5. Rest.
  6. Deal with stress.
  7. Think about today.
  8. Give back.
  9. Challenge yourself.
  10. Drink less alcohol and avoid all other drugs.