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In America today, approximately 45-47 million, or 1 out of 5 Americans, is suffering with a mental health issue and approximately 1 in 25 adults is currently experiencing a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with one or more major life activities. Sadly, the rate of suicide is at a 30-year high.

While more individuals are accessing care, an astounding 9 million are struggling with unmet needs. These are our friends, colleagues, neighbors and perhaps our own family members. As CEO of Wyoming Behavioral Institute, my staff and I have the privilege of serving many members of our community who are experiencing some of the most challenging times of their lives – mental illnesses that are often invisible to the casual observer in ways that physical illnesses are not.

May is Mental Health Awareness month, providing an important opportunity for reflection and collective action to address barriers, including the ongoing stigma and stereotypes preventing many individuals from getting the care they need.

A recent poll of 1,000 Americans conducted by Research Now provides some noteworthy insights regarding perception and barriers. High percentages of respondents view mental health as equal in importance to physical health with illnesses like depression and anxiety cited among the top concerns, along with cancer and heart disease. The same poll identified barriers to care and different perspectives regarding value for physical and mental health where historically the latter wasn’t taken as seriously.

The good news is that there is much hope – and today, positive outcomes are not only possible, they are experienced every day. Like chronic physical illness, mental illness can be diagnosed and effectively managed. Individuals who were once in despair can regain their mental health and go on to live their best lives. This is highly rewarding and one reason I chose to work in this field.

What can we do within our communities to recognize the signs of mental health issues and assist those in need of care and treatment?

Listen and show understanding: if you suspect a loved one is struggling, offer to listen and encourage them to seek professional help.

Share the Lifeline number (800-273-TALK) – a 24/7, free and confidential support line. Suicide is often preventable when people at risk receive the support that they need.

Our schools should encourage students to pursue careers in mental health fields, whether through nursing, medical or vocational programs. This is a growing field; we need the next generation of talented professionals. Wyoming Behavioral Institute partners with the University of Wyoming, Casper College and other learning institutions to offer clinical rotations.

Each of us can play a positive role to improve the lives of the millions of Americans suffering from mental health challenges, not just during this month, but every month in every community across the country.

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Michael Phillips is CEO of Wyoming Behavioral Institute.

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