Anxiety. Depression. Bipolar disorder. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Schizophrenia. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

For many people, these disorders can be viewed from a distance, from the perspective of their own experiences. They may not have experienced anxiety, depression or any mental health disorder.

For others, these disorders are part of their reality. They cannot hide from their mental illness or observe it from a distance. Living with the disease is something they must face every day. Participating in conversations about them, whether in general or specific to their own struggles, brings a deeper meaning. Sometimes it’s a conversation that people would rather not have at that moment.

Started in 1990 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and held annually, Mental Illness Awareness Week has been an opportunity for organizations to educate people about mental health disorders. The 2018 campaign will be October 7—13.

More and more people being aware of the prevalence of each disorder is a step in the right direction, but more can be done. There are real people who must put on a brave face each day and persist through their mental illness. Understanding this can do more to remove the stigma that the phrase “mental illness” often carries. Acknowledging that people who have a mental illness might need an extra effort of kindness could, in the end, save a life.

Facts About Mental Illness

The statistics themselves are eye-opening for many. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, close to 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness in a given year. The exact number exceeds 43 million people in the country. Around 18 percent of adults have struggled with an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. Approximately 7 percent of Americans, which equals around 16 million, experience one major depressive episode each year. Of the 20 million Americans who struggle with a substance use disorder, around half have a co-occurring mental health disorder.

However, listing statistics related to the prevalence of mental illness in the U.S. is just the tip of the iceberg of what needs to be done. Of those who have a mental illness, close to 25 percent struggle in such a way that they have trouble with at least one major life activity. That, the extreme and harrowing effects that these disorders have on so many people, is the bigger issue. Understanding how these disorders affect millions of Americans is just as, if not more, important.

The Realities of Mental Health Disorders

Depression can lead to people isolating themselves, losing interest in activities they once enjoyed or even thoughts of suicide. Anxiety can cause people to feel an irregular amount of stress related to specific situations and cause such a fear that those who have this disorder might avoid these situations altogether. Bipolar disorder can create extreme mood swings that can become so emotionally draining for people who have the illness, and their loved one who they interact with, that those with this disorder sometimes rather not live at all than live with such a burden. Post-traumatic stress disorder can bring people who experienced a real-life nightmare back to the memories in such a vivid way that it completely derails their day.

These are real emotions and thoughts that happen to real people every day.

How to Make the World Better During This Year’s Mental Illness Awareness Week

The statistics associated with mental illness are frequently stated, but more can be done on an individual level in the U.S. to help remove the stigma associated with mental health disorders.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness will promote the theme “CureStigma” throughout the awareness week events. The campaign manifesto states, “There’s a virus spreading across America. … It’s stigma. Stigma against people with mental health conditions. But there’s good news. Stigma is 100 percent curable. Compassion, empathy and understanding are the antidote.”

Showing compassion, empathy and understanding will do far more than listing statistics in the effort to help people with a mental illness. But what does this mean? What are some tangible ways in which people can be more compassionate or empathetic to their fellow human beings?

Chances are each person has a family member or friend who struggles with a mental illness. People can start by asking how their friend or loved one is doing, making plans with them and building a stronger relationship, one that involves trust and encourages open dialogue about any internal struggles. However, the necessity for more empathy and compassion isn’t limited to just intimate relationships or those that could become intimate. Interactions with strangers are additional opportunities to help people who struggle with mental health. Starting conversations or offering compliments could brighten someone’s day.

Simple acts such as holding the door open could mean a lot to a person who feels ignored or forgotten. Showing unselfishness and patience, such as allowing someone to merge in front in a traffic jam,  could prevent feelings of anxiety from emerging and derailing a person’s day. Simply listening to someone describe the struggle that they face could make them feel more accepted by others and more confident in forming more relationships.

People who have a mental health disorder are often afraid of discussing their illness with others for fear of judgment or rejection. In the country’s continuing effort to raise awareness of mental illness, those who do not have a mental illness can help eliminate the stigma and some of the worst effects of these diseases. This week, and every week after, make an effort to reach out to the individuals who face these struggles. Help them feel accepted, loved, and wanted. Sometimes they struggle to feel that way on their own.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides resources for people who struggle with mental illness. For more information on Mental Illness Awareness week, visit any of the Alliance’s pages:

Mental Illness Awareness Week 2018: Oct. 7-13
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