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Mental Illness Awareness Week

This first full week of October marks Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW).  Since 1990, when Congress made this event official, MIAW has been a national campaign to raise awareness of mental illness. Mental illness deserves our attention more than just one week out of the year; however, this week serves as a useful reminder that we must educate ourselves and others in order to continue to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness and to provide support to those individuals and families that have been affected.  Perhaps more than ever, we need awareness, acceptance, and compassion surrounding mental illness. The devastating effects of the coronavirus are indescribable, and underneath this grim reality lies another potential crisis, one that needs to be urgently addressed.  The United Nations (UN) warned in a briefing in May 2020, “the coronavirus pandemic has the seeds of a major mental health crisis.”  In fact, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “Unless we act now to address the mental health needs associated with the pandemic, there will be enormous long-term consequences for families, communities and societies.”

Let’s look at the most recent statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, published on August 20, 2019 (data included at

  • One in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness each year
  • One in six U.S. youth aged 6-17 experiences a mental health disorder each year
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 10-34

Identifying mental illness is not as straight-forward as testing an individual’s blood sugar levels for diabetes.  Regarding diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) states, “The average delay between symptom onset and treatment is 11 years.”  To help combat the delay of treatment, it is important to recognize some of the common signs and/or symptoms of someone struggling with this type of illness.  Keep in mind, each condition manifests differently in individuals and often many symptoms overlap.  Common warning signs of mental illness include: feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks; trying to harm oneself or others (or making plans to do so); severe/out-of-control/risk-taking behaviors; intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities; seeing, hearing or believing things that aren’t real; excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs; and/or drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping habits. If you are concerned about yourself or someone you care about, ask questions in a compassionate and understanding way and don’t be afraid to ask for help!

What can you do to help dismantle the stigma surrounding mental illness?  First, examine your own beliefs and attitudes.  Maybe you were raised in a certain environment, influenced by individuals who are more critical and judgmental. Challenge those beliefs and create your own set of values.  Perhaps you want to stop a generational pattern of discrimination.  What is the legacy you want to leave behind?  You do not have to wait until you are older or have kids to address this issue.  Start now, make a difference now!  Second, are you responding to the idea of mental illness out of fear or misunderstanding?  If so, educate yourself about mental illness, including substance use disorders.  Learning more about mental illness can help combat your fear. You can do this by speaking to individuals who have been affected by mental illness, listening to appropriate podcasts, reading articles by individuals who are affected by mental illness or by reputable professionals.  Thirdly, use appropriate language when speaking with others about mental illness; our language and our interactions can have powerful impacts on the attitudes of others. It is never okay to name call or use verbally abusive language.  Fourthly, as you become more educated and begin to challenge myths and stereotypes, pass along the facts to others. And lastly, support individuals who have been affected by mental illness.  Keep in mind, mental illness does not just affect the individual but also their family, friends, and caregivers.  It is our job to treat everyone with respect and dignity, to offer support and encouragement.  An individual who has been impacted by mental illness is someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, or friend, an individual with strengths, talents, and wisdom.  Mental illness does not define an individual; it is one piece of who they are.  Imagine a 100-piece puzzle: one piece equals their mental illness; the other 99 pieces are all the other aspects that make them a whole person.

To make a tangible commitment to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, read and sign the StigmaFree Pledge .

Throughout MIAW, there are related events dedicated to specific days:

  • Tuesday, October 6:  National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding
  • Thursday, October 8:  National Depression Screening Day
  • Saturday, October 10:  World Mental Health Day
  • Saturday, October 10:  NAMIWalks National Day of Hope

NAMI’s yearlong awareness campaign titled, You Are Not Alone, has been centered on stories from individuals who have been affected by mental illness, bringing inspiration to individuals and educating the public.  If you are suffering, you are not alone. Mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, and income level. It has no boundaries. It does not discriminate. There are resources available locally and nationwide on

If you are struggling with symptoms of mental illness and would like to schedule an appointment, please reach out to me at [email protected] or at (703) 951-6409, ext. 9.

The green ribbon is the international symbol for mental health awareness.  By wearing green, you show support for individuals impacted by mental illness, you create a “safe space” for others to talk about mental health, and you honor the memory of a loved one.  Join me this week in wearing green and actively participate to help end the stigma of mental illness.

You and I can make a difference!

Alison Curtis, MS, LPC, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Alison!