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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Mental Health Awareness Month: The History and Impact

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about the impact mental health can have on a person’s overall well-being and share resources that may benefit those struggling with mental health disorders.


Mental Health Awareness

Numerous organizations dedicated to mental health awareness and services will be participating in Mental Health Awareness Month in 2024. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), for example, has prepared a “Take the Moment” campaign to encourage empathy, understanding, and open conversations surrounding mental health.¹ Meanwhile, Mental Health America will launch a “Where to Start” campaign that highlights how to find resources, develop coping tools, and advocate for yourself and your community.² These organizations and others will be posting on social media, offering information, and in some cases, holding events.


Dialogue surrounding mental health has increased in recent decades as those in the medical field have come to understand how common mental health disorders are. According to NAMI, 22.8% of adults in the US experienced some form of mental illness in 2021, more than one fifth of the adult population.³ That same year, 5.5% of adults in the US experienced mental illness categorized as serious. Despite these figures, just 47.2% of adults experiencing mental illness in 2021 received treatment for it.


Mental Health Awareness Month aims in part to reduce stigma around mental illness. The hope is to encourage treatment, both by understanding the myriad ways mental illness can affect people and the ways patients, friends, loved ones, and health care professionals can help. Doing so can not only improve patient quality of life, but health care value and total costs in the process.⁴ What is the history of Mental Health Awareness Month and what impact has it had?


The History of Mental Health Awareness Month


May was first designated as Mental Health Awareness Month in 1949 with the goal to increase awareness of mental illness and wellness.⁵ However, this was decades in the making – Mental Health Awareness Month was initially recognized by Mental Health America, whose first iteration was founded in 1908.⁶ Originally the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene, the organization was founded by Clifford Beers, an author who had written about his struggles with mental health and the problematic treatments he endured at different institutions.


In 1917, the US Surgeon General asked Mental Health America to create a mental health program, the draft of which was implemented by the Army and Navy as the United States prepared to enter World War I. Mental Health America’s influence continued to grow by the 1930s, as over 3,000 people convened in Washington D.C. for the First International Congress of Mental Hygiene.


President Harry Truman, in a special message to Congress in 1945, recommended a comprehensive health program and specified a need for more research and resources for mental health.⁷ This eventually culminated in Truman signing of the National Mental Health Act in 1946, which included a call for establishing a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).⁸ The NIMH was officially established as an institute of the National Institute of Health in 1949 – the same year as the first Mental Health Awareness Month.


The Impact of Mental Health Awareness Month


In the decades since the inception of Mental Health Awareness Month, research, legislation, and public awareness have accelerated the cause. Even the duration has grown; Mental Health America’s initial 1949 awareness campaign lasted only a week but eventually was expanded to the entirety of May.


With the help of the NIMH, several laws were passed in the 1950s concerning mental health. The Mental Health Study Act of 1955 called for more research into mental illness, while the Health Amendments Act of 1956 gave NIMH the ability to award mental health-related project grants that got the institute more involved in community-based programs.⁸ The 1960s saw Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both call for additional research into social challenges, mental health chief among them. Notably, President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act in 1963.


Mental Health America later participated in a lawsuit that, in 1973, culminated in the release of an impounded sum of $52 million that Congress had voted on for community mental health centers.⁶ A year later, the organization successfully helped remove a question about history of mental illness from federal government employee forms.


With increased funding, research, and awareness, other mental health organizations formed. In 1979, 59 family support groups in North America came together to form the National Alliance on Mental Illness.⁹ By the 1980s, NAMI was airing public service announcements across the United States.¹⁰ In the 1990s, which the US Congress declared the “Decade of the Brain,” NAMI participated in public awareness campaigns for mental health-related stigmas.

The 1990s also saw the creation of a new government agency focused on mental health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).⁸ With NIMH focused on research, SAMHSA would focus on service availability for those struggling with addiction and mental illness.


With these and other organizations dedicated to mental health research and services, researchers have been able to learn more about the effects and prevalence of mental illnesses. The World Health Organization estimated that in 2019, 970 million people around the world were living with at least one mental disorder.


Research has allowed us to understand not just the prevalence, but the ways that mental health struggles affect people and those around them. Per NAMI, people with serious mental illnesses are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular and metabolic diseases compared to the general population, while people with depression have a 40% greater risk. High schoolers with significant depression symptoms are over twice as likely to drop out of school, and family caregivers to adults with mental health issues average 32 hours a week of unpaid care for their relatives. There is also an economic impact; NAMI estimates a yearly total of $193.2 billion in lost earnings for Americans on account of serious mental illness.


Fostering awareness and research can potentially reduce the stigma around mental illness and receiving treatment. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2019 to 2021, the number of adults who said they received mental health treatment in the previous 12 months in the National Health Interview survey increased from 19.2% to 21.6%.¹² This increase was even more pronounced in adults aged 18 to 44, which grew from 18.5% to 23.2% in the same time period. Treatment was defined as one or both of taking prescription medication for mental health and seeking counseling or therapy for mental health.


This growth in treatment is important in reducing stigma, but also speaks to how much more work there is to be done increasing awareness and access to mental health services.


Note: This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor

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