Well+Good Council member Drew Ramsey, MD, a practicing psychiatrist, is passionate about the need to remove the stigma associated with mental health—and with asking for help. Here, just in time for Mental Illness Awareness Week, he shares some real talk about the prevalence of mental illness.
I’m a psychiatrist in active clinical practice in New York City and have been for the last 16 years. I also work with the American Psychiatric Association to help reach more people, save more lives, and shed light and science on the confusing and often painful arena of mental illness and emotional health.
This week, thousands of Americans will die from mental illness unnecessarily. The first step to changing that is through awareness.
Whether you're an ally or coping with mental illness yourself, here's what you need to know.
1. Your life is deeply affected by mental illnesses
The only way to prevent and recover from mental illness is to understand these complex challenges that stem from the brain and influence our moods, worries, memory, and sense of reality. We are currently losing the fight. In 2016, there were 40,000 suicides and 65,000 deaths from opioid addiction.
By last count, nearly 19 percent of adults in the U.S. has a psychiatric illness. If you think you or your family are immune, you need to wake up before the funeral. Smart people, rich people, pretty people, wellness people—everyone is at risk.
2. Treatment works
I’ve worked in psychiatric inpatient units, community clinics, emergency rooms, and private practice. Before I was an NYC psychiatrist, I was an Indiana farm boy. I have zero tolerance for shit that doesn’t work. If I didn't see people recover, I would quit.
Yes, there is a debate about how effective medications can be and there are concerns of over-prescription (I’m personally and professionally thankful for medications, FYI.) But medications are just one of an array of interventions. There are huge missed opportunities for treatment ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous (and NA, CA, Al-Anon, and more) communities to free clinics to emergency rooms dedicated to mental health. Bottom line is this: Psychiatrists save lives for a living just like all physicians. And less dramatically, but just as importantly, we improve lives. The earlier you speak to a mental health professional, the better. But it is never too late.
3. Your stigma harms people
“Are you sure you need meds?” “That chick is so bipolar!” “Addiction? Just say no. Have some willpower, bro.” That’s not stuff I’ve heard—it’s stuff I've said. Not anymore, but I have spread stigma—just like you might—through ignorance and fear. My first night working the psychiatric ER at Columbia, I was so ashamed. I was scared by a few patients in the midst of psychosis, hearing voices and very agitated. I sat with my fear. I learned to do my job.
Today, the only thing that really scares me is the stigma we all promote. Sometimes I get very scared that we are losing. The true cost of all the political hub-bub and lack of progress is the erosion of our collective mental health. You have a job in fighting stigma, too. Either you fight it, or you promote it. There is no middle ground.
4. You can prevent suicide
Deep in the woods, two years ago, a 17-year-old high school junior hung himself. He was an only child and I treat his mother. Speaking with her every week gives me a front row seat to one of the 40,000 suicides a year in America. (There are hundreds of thousands of people who attempt each year.) Certain populations, like our veterans, the elderly, and individuals with addiction, are at greater risk. Certain behaviors increase the risk; being a smoker doubles the risk of suicide.
What has struck my patient is the number of people who share that they too have lost a family member to suicide. We prevent suicide by talking, by asking without stigma, and by planning thoughtfully for people who are at risk. Someone you see today is thinking about killing themselves. Your smile, your question, your love could save them. Trust me. They told me it did.
5. There is no health without mental health
Your emotional wellness deserves as much attention as we give our physical selves. The top cause of disability in the U.S.? Neuropsychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, and addiction. This is why it would be a disaster to let health plans reject people with pre-existing conditions.
What are you going to do this week to improve your mental health? Do something. People spend hours working on their bodies, but neglect the part of themselves on which all wellness depends, their mental/brain/emotional health. Be it a support group or a supportive group, couples therapy or date night, mediation or meditation, this week I ask that you take an inventory of your mental health, to sit with your awareness about you. Be honest. Think of next steps. Ask for partnership (what I used to call help).
6. You can ask for help
Working in mental health for this past decade and half, I've seen the effects of our silence. For my patients, nothing is worse than feeling alone, that their pain is a secret. You may know something about this, too. Human connection is powerful medicine.
What can you do this week? If you are struggling, this week is the week. Start by telling someone. Make a plan. Recovery is possible and it starts with one step. Sometimes it's very hard to tell people we know best about our innermost struggles, that is totally normal, but don't let this stand in your way.
- American Psychiatric Association provides resources for patients and families.
- NAMI and Mental Health America provide support groups and community around the US.
- The JED Foundation's mission is to protect the emotional health of our youth and the Trevor Project specializes in assisting LGBTQ youth
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 24/7, free, and available to help with crisis interventions and questions. (Only 25 percent of callers are in Acute Suicidal Distress.)
One in five Americans? The truth is that we all struggle to maintain mental wellness. It is a challenge of being human. How lives look on Facebook and Instagram doesn't tell the whole story. This week, reach out to anyone you are concerned about, be more open to those around you...because we often don't know the whole story until we show we can listen.
As a psychiatrist and farmer, Dr. Drew Ramsey specializes in exploring the connection between food and brain health (i.e. how eating a nutrient-rich diet can balance moods, sharpen brain function, and improve mental health). When he’s not out in his fields growing his beloved brassica—you can read all about his love affair with the superfood in his book 50 Shades of Kale—or treating patients through his private practice in New York City, Dr. Ramsey is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
What should Drew write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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