This May, let’s “Green Out” for mental health awareness.

When I go Halloween grocery shopping in October, the cashier almost always asks if I’d like to top off my order with a few dollars for the Susan G. Komen Foundation or The Pink Fund. And I usually do: these are frontline organizations in the fight against breast cancer – a devastating disease, one that I myself have lost loved ones to – and they deserve support and appreciation.

In contrast, I cannot recall a single time I have been asked to donate to Mental Health America, or the Trevor Project, or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, during the month of May.
Yet in the United States, May has been recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949. (To put that into perspective, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has been annually observed in October since 1985.) Don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t know that there’s been an entire month dedicated to mental health advocacy for the last 71 years. I didn’t realize MHAM had been around that long until three days ago – and I’ve been observing it for two years.

I won’t launch into a rant on how mental illness is just as real and serious as physical ailments such as cancer and heart disease – it’s an argument that has been made countless times, one that those of us working in mental health advocacy are all too familiar with. And as much as I hate to say it, I’m not sure that it’s gotten us much headway: psychiatric care is (thankfully) light years ahead of where it was even a few decades ago, and the conversation about mental illness is slowly but surely becoming more acceptable to have out in the open, thanks to the tireless work of mental health professionals, grassroots activists, policymakers, and high-profile celebrities who have chosen to open up about their mental health struggles, such as Carrie Fisher, Dwayne Johnson, Kristen Stewart, and even Prince Harry. But the fact that Mental Health America reports that more than 10 million US adults have an unmet need for mental health treatment – a number that has not declined since 2011 – and that major depressive disorder (MDD) has increased in young people by 4.35% over the last six years, is a stark reminder of just how far we still have to go before mental illness is taken as seriously as the statistics warrant.

We know that human beings tend to respond more strongly to story than to numbers – data and stats can give us invaluable insight into the scope of a problem, but stories are what allow us to connect one-on-one with the experiences of others, empathize with one another, and inspire us to take action in our own lives. Which is why I propose that we “Green Out” the month of May, in the same spirit as “Pink Outs” during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We can rally our communities to show up for those suffering from mental illness the same way we show up for those suffering from cancer, and other chronic diseases as well – and it all starts by setting a personal example by showing that you aren’t afraid to talk about mental health.

Greening Out could look like:

1) Proudly wearing a green ribbon throughout May (or beyond!) or sporting a mental health awareness t-shirt. (Etsy has some fabulous options, and your purchase will support small creators.)

2) Sharing about Mental Health Awareness Month on social media.

3) Organizing a fundraiser for your local MHA or NAMI chapter.*
(*Due to the current COVID-19 situation, this might require some out-of-the-box thinking.)

4) Sharing mental health information & resources with folks in your community, online or on the ground.

5) Sharing your story of how mental illness has impacted you, if you feel comfortable doing so, and encouraging others to share theirs.

The possibilities are endless, but the goal is simple: be unapologetically vocal about mental illness. It’s not an easy conversation to have, which is why so many people are still suffering in silence, too afraid and ashamed to seek help. But that conversation will become easier the more we start speaking up and demanding that mental illness be treated with the same concern and care we show for other illnesses – which is exactly why we have Mental Health Awareness Month in the first place.

How do you plan to Green Out this month? Share in the comments.

I must fight in the open.

Clifford W. Beers, founder of Mental Health America, in response to those who told him to keep his mental health activism annonymous

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