May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the past several weeks have brought the issue to the forefront.

The mass shooting at the 36th Street station on the N train in Sunset Park last month brought the words “mental health” back into the light. While 62-year-old Frank James had mental health issues, why does the issue of mental health only come up during acts of violence?

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. According to a report from the U.S.

Department of Justice, in 2015, the rate of violent victimization against persons with disabilities (29.5 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older) was 2.5 times higher than the rate for persons without disabilities (11.8 per 1,000), “which was adjusted to account for the differences between the age distributions for persons with and without disabilities.”

And the issue is worsening. According to Mental Health America, in 2019 (pre-pandemic) 19.86% of adults experienced a mental illness (nearly 50 million Americans). Depression is increasing among young people, with 19% of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 experiencing major depression.

Multi-racial kids have it worse than that. Among the demographic, multi-racial kids are 14.5% more likely to suffer from severe depression.

Over the past few years, public figures have done their best to break the stigma of mental health. From athletes to entertainers to politicians, there’s been a huge push to make discussing mental health as easy as discussing physical injuries. But the stigma remains. Why?

“There is a stigma attached to acknowledging our mental health challenges. And it’s important for people to understand that physical health and mental health are inseparable,” said clinical psychologist and Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine Professor Jeff Gardere. “And even though we take the time to work on or acknowledge when we have physical health issues, we don’t do the same thing when it comes to mental health…”
Azizah McEntire LMHC, LPC, licensed mental health counselor and founder of Healing On Us, said that it’s easy to not look at the bigger picture because society seeks comfort and because discussing mental health issues is uncomfortable.

“If I’m examining ants in a maze, I can see clearly how the ants are moving around,” she said. “If I am the ant in the maze, I will not see the next tunnel until I get there. Sometimes it’s easier to be the observer. If I saw an ant that somehow got off track I could steer them in the direction of the colony. As an observer, that’s very easy for me to do. Now, if I lost my way I have to dig a little deeper, maybe identify why, acknowledge that I’m off path, and make a decision to change directions, which can all be scary. I think some people focus on others, because it’s safe.”

In a background paper from the Treatment Advocacy Center in 2016 in Pittsburgh, 270 people with severe psychiatric disorders who were recently discharged from hospital were followed for 10 weeks and compared to 477 neighbors. During that period, 15% of those in the former category were victims of violence compared to 7% of the latter.

McEntire said that despite stats like these there must be a way to speak about mental health to those close to you.
“Reducing mental health stigmas has come a long way but as a therapist I still encounter people that experience resistance from family members about going to therapy,” McEntire said. “Anything that is misunderstood will be challenged. I think it’s important to have conversations and forums on mental health, not only on a global level but in schools, churches, community centers…”

Recent statistics from Johns Hopkins University showed that, “Mental health disorders account for several of the top causes of disability in established market economies, such as the U.S., worldwide, and include: major depression (also called clinical depression), manic depression (also called bipolar disorder), schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Mass shooters do suffer from untreated severe mental illness. According to a study from Stanford University’s School of Medicine, out of 35 mass shootings, between 1982 and 2019, many of the shooters weren’t treated for the mental illness they suffered from.

That makes them like most Americans. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that 90% of people who die by suicide showed symptoms of a mental health condition.

In New York, the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health is doing its best to help address mental health issues by providing data and openings for New Yorkers to communicate with the city. On Twitter, the agency acknowledged the theme for this month and provided words of encouragement.

“New Yorkers, May is Mental Health Awareness Month,” read the department’s Twitter page. “Together, we can reduce the stigma and better care for our mental health and well-being.”

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