May is Mental Health Awareness Month; this is a month to raise awareness about mental illnesses and the importance of mental wellness for all. As many of you are aware, much attention has been paid to mental health as of late. It’s been all over the news, and splashed across headlines. Often, what is reported is distorted, and assumptions are made about those who suffer from mental illness. People start to associate mental illness with violence. This was the case after last month’s tragedy at Fort Hood. Our hearts go out to all of those who are and continue to be affected by this tragic event and the others that preceded it. This is also how stigma and negative associations are perpetuated in the media and society at large regarding mental illness. Why is mental health so important? The statistics tell part of the story: Nearly 1 in 5 of us, approximately 60 million people are affected by mental illness. 22 veterans commit suicide EVERY day. Countless military family members suffer from mental illness. The tragedy in these numbers is that much of this is treatable and preventable. The problem is and continues to be the stigma that is associated with mental illness. Mental health stigma can be divided into two distinct types: social stigma which is characterized by prejudicial attitudes and discriminating behavior directed towards individuals with mental health problems. Self-stigma is when a person views him or herself negatively because of their mental health problems (Link, Cullen, Struening & Shrout, 1989). Often service members will not report that they are suffering from a mental illness. This could be due to social stigma ~ fear that disclosure can affect their career or that others will find out and view them differently. It can also be due to self-stigma, those negative feelings they may have about themselves; that they are weak or somehow damaged because they have a mental condition. This. Has. To. Stop. Mental illness is like any other disorder. You would not feel shame or fear of disclosure if you were diagnosed with cancer or heart disease. Mental illness is no different. It requires treatment and the support of others through their illness. We need to educate others, increase awareness and stop the stigma. This is the only way in which this situation can improve and the only way to reduce and eventually eliminate the suicide epidemic within our community. A personal friend, and an amazing young man and soldier took his own life just two short years ago. Had he not hidden his struggles and had he shared what was going on with him he might not have taken his own life. He might be here with us today. He could have gotten treatment. The impact on his friends and family is very real, long-lasting and heartbreaking. This could have been prevented, he could have been treated. Perhaps if the stigma was not there he would have felt compelled to seek treatment. Who knows? But what is known is that for whatever reason he felt he could not seek help, and his despair led him to make the irrevocable choice to take his own life. Don’t let someone in your life suffer in silence. If you have a friend or family member who is struggling, who seems withdrawn, isn’t going out or enjoying activities they used to enjoy, or are not eating or sleeping well… don’t be afraid to ask them how they are doing. Encourage them to seek out a mental health professional for help. Support them and let them know that you are there for them. Our military families, service members and vets have lived a life of service. They may not feel comfortable asking for help. They may feel that it could affect their career. They may even feel that they are somehow weak or damaged because they have a mental condition. This is NOT the case. The sooner we as a society and as a military family accept that, the closer we are to distinguishing the stigma associated with mental health and the closer we are to bringing those numbers down to zero. Be a part of the solution, educate others and #reducethestigma.