When you break your leg, you immediately know what to do. You go to the emergency room. A doctor examines it, you have surgery, you recover in a hospital room and complete physical therapy.

When someone is struggling emotionally or mentally, the path isn’t as clear. And the stigma associated with that struggle is fueled by the unknown.

Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person” and “a mark of shame or discredit.”

Shame. Disgrace. Words that make you wince, that ignite fear and can mean damage to one’s well-being.

Individuals and organizations have made great strides in reducing the stigma mental illness holds, but there’s still much work to be done.

One such organization in Terre Haute has been diligently working this month (Mental Health Awareness Month) to raise awareness in our community.

Hamilton Center’s 2020 campaign theme, “Stigma Nope, not today,” which can be seen on flyers, T-shirts and more, allows someone to ask, “what do you mean by that?” It offers an “in” to a conversation that is every much as important as, “I think I’ve broken my leg; where’s the closest emergency room?”

Today (May 22) was chosen as “Wear Green Day” by the organization, an additional way to ignite discussion. Center employees, and others across the community, will be sporting green to do just that. They’ve been asked to use #StigmaNopenottoday on social media, to help spread the message.

Details were released just this week on local nonprofit Team of Mercy’s seventh annual “Surviving the Color” 5K walk/run, planned for July 11. Team of Mercy offers assistance to those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-34 in Indiana, and almost five times as many people died by suicide in Indiana in 2018 than in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Team of Mercy has assisted more than 500 individuals during the last year and reports that in 2019, 40 lives were lost to suicide in the Wabash Valley. “Surviving the Color” seeks to bring awareness to these numbers and also to educate and reduce stigma.

These noble efforts would have been present with or without the COVID-19 pandemic. But one thing is proving certain: The pandemic, which upended everyone’s routine, causing isolation for most and fear for many, has increased the threat of mental illness.

Before the coronavirus hit the United States, Mental Health America was reporting alarming statistics:

• Youth mental health is worsening. From 2012 to 2017, the prevalence of past-year Major Depressive Episode increased from 8.66 percent to 13.01 percent of youth ages 12-17. Now over two million youth have MDE with severe impairment.

• Adult prevalence of mental health is relatively stagnant, but suicidal ideation is increasing. MHA reports 10.3 million adults in the U.S. have serious thoughts of suicide.

As frightening as these “before” numbers are, what the organization’s screening program is showing now is “roughly 18,000 more people sought help for anxiety or depression since [the COVID-19] pandemic began; nearly 14,000 considered suicide or self-harm in March and April.”

Locally, Hamilton Center has reported it's experiencing an increase in requests for services. “Many individuals are experiencing increased anxiety and stress related to COVID-19,” Mark Collins, Hamilton Center’s chief clinical officer, told reporter Sue Loughin for a story in April.

Soon after Indiana entered its pandemic slow-down protocols in late March and early April, the state’s addiction hotlines saw an increase in crisis calls from 20 calls a week to 20 calls per day, according to the state’s Family and Social Services Administration, reported Lisa Trigg in a story published on May 9.

The road ahead looks daunting.

More than four in 10 adults overall feel that worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. About one in five say it is has had a “major impact.”

With uncertainty of how the pandemic will play out both socially and financially for Americans, the need to reinforce the importance of mental health is more critical than ever.

We ask for your help in spreading this message. Mental health is vital to both our individual and overall well-being as a community. Accepting this truth is the first step in a long journey ahead.
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