May is Mental Health Awareness month and a good time to be open about mental health. Statistics tell us that one in five people in the United States experience a mental health problem every year, including seniors.

Unfortunately, many of us do not seek help and support because of stigma. This comes from two places: The first is a place inside us, where we confuse feeling bad with being bad; the second is a feeling of shame or judgment that comes from someone else. Having a mental health concern can create stigma for both reasons and we all need to work to increase openness in our conversations and concern for others.

Living with a mental health condition can be hard. The loneliness, blame and secrecy that are often created by stigma can increase this because it raises barriers to reaching out, getting needed support and living well.

Unfortunately, older adults experiencing mental health conditions often get ignored, face rejection, bullying and discrimination. To provide an analogy, we can all easily catch a cold, a fewer number of us get the flu and a smaller group may go down with pneumonia. No one is heaping shame on someone in any of these groups for touching a doorknob covered in germs or not washing their hands.

On the other side, the blues or anxiety can appear at many levels. Most of us can feel down or sad for a day or two, fewer of us may feel low and blue for a few weeks, especially as our sunlight disappears, and then a small group may go way down and need medication.

For these mental health concerns, friends and relatives can often be judgmental, minimizing and unhelpful. Phrases like “pull yourself together” or “just get over it” are common and unhelpful in the world of mental illness just as they would be for physical conditions. This can make a journey back to wellness longer and more difficult.

Fear and stigma often leave us feeling afraid to seek help or unaware that our symptoms could be dramatically improved with some professional help. Education can help.

Samaritan offers Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour public education program, which introduces participants to the unique risk factors and warning signs, builds understanding of early intervention, and teaches how to help someone in crisis or experiencing a mental health challenge. To find a class or to register, call 866 -243-7747 or visit samhealth.org/MentalHealthFirstAid.

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