Guest Columnist

Let's talk about mental illness in our community

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

(Aleksandr Rybalko/Dreamstime/TNS)
(Aleksandr Rybalko/Dreamstime/TNS)

One in five people will have some kind of mental illness in their lifetime. Yet despite how common these conditions are — as common as silver cars, and more common than being left-handed — stigma remains the greatest barrier to individuals seeking help regarding their mental illness.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This serves as a great opportunity for our community to begin eliminating stigma by starting conversations and increasing understanding about mental illness.

Now, more than ever before, it is important to talk about mental illness. Many of us could be feeling increased anxiety, stress and feelings of isolation due to the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing requirements. For those Iowans who already live with a mental illness, this pandemic could be causing symptoms to compound.

A recent study released by a team at Iowa State University states that increased unemployment and social isolation measures related to COVID-19 could result in an increase in suicide rates of close to 50,000 individuals.

Despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, there still is help available: Telehealth services during this crisis is critical. Our state leaders, Iowa Insurance Commissioner Doug Ommen and Gov. Kim Reynolds responded immediately by encouraging health providers, insurers and businesses to work together to remove barriers and ensure telehealth is accessible.

Your Life Iowa, a state-operated service, offers referrals for problems related to alcohol, drugs, gambling, mental health or suicidal thoughts and can be contacted by phone, text or online chat 24/7.

Between March 1 and April 19, Your Life Iowa received nearly 500 contacts related to COVID-19 and traffic on the website — YourLifeIowa.org — is up 27 percent. Crisis lines and mental health counselors around the state and country are also reporting an uptick in patients reaching out for resources or virtual counseling. This is important progress.

However, the greatest barrier for those in need of mental health services is stigma.

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If you know someone who is struggling, be a voice of support. The silence around mental illness is preventing our fellow Iowans — our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members — from feeling better. By breaking down the stigma around mental illness, we can help them access the resources and treatment they deserve.

If someone opened up to you about their mental illness, would you know what to say? Do you have a general understanding of the most common mental illnesses? Do you know how to support loved ones dealing with mental illness? There are free resources available at MakeItOK.org/Iowa to learn more.

You can also read stories of Iowans who live with mental illness, take a pledge to end mental illness stigma and learn more about how you can get more involved with Make It OK through ambassador trainings, upcoming events and workplace programming.

Together, we can end the stigma and Make It OK.

Jami Haberl, Iowa Healthiest State Initiative; Lori Weih, UnityPoint Health — St. Luke’s Hospital; Tricia Kitzmann, Linn County Public Health and Mona McCalley-Whitters, Ph.D., National Alliance on Mental Illness-Linn County.

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