Some diseases are obvious. Others are much harder to discern. Consider this: during the past month, about three in every 100 Americans experienced ‘serious psychological distress,’ according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Statistics. More than 58 million people per year seek outpatient medical care for mental disorders. And yet almost 37,000, about 12 in every 100,000 people, take their own lives.

“Mental illnesses are physical disorders, they’re not just mental,” says Joyce Johnston, director of programs at the St. Louis chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which is sponsoring national Mental Illness Awareness Week, Oct. 7 through 13. “They’re biologically based, and they’re very treatable.”

Despite the ability to identify and treat mental illness, misinformation, lack of awareness and a lingering stigma still prevent many people from getting help. “It is not uncommon that symptoms of mental health disorders go untreated for many years, often worsening in severity before professional help is sought,” says Patty Morrow, a licensed professional counselor and executive director of Mercy Behavioral Health Services.

Anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, personality disorders and psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, are among the mental illnesses that can destroy lives if left untreated. These conditions do not go away on their own. Instead, they are likely to progress and become harder to treat over time.

However, there is always hope. “Many people live symptom-free of their illness when under the proper care and treatment. For that reason, early intervention is very important,” Morrow says. “Often, loved ones are instrumental in encouraging others to seek care for mental health conditions. Taking an approach that eliminates the stigma of seeking help, being involved in the treatment process and seeking education through organizations like NAMI are valuable resources that can provide guidance and support.”

Johnston notes that NAMI St. Louis offers a helpline, support groups and classes for individuals who have mental illness, as well as for their loved ones and caretakers. “A person doesn’t have to be in treatment. If a family member feels that they need a class, then sometimes they come to us because a family member is not in treatment and they’re having struggles,” she says. “What they get from us is in addition to formal treatment. Families need to be as involved as possible in their ill family member’s care, and they need the education and support in order to get through these challenges.”

If an individual threatens to harm himself or someone else, immediate intervention is needed. The St. Louis Area Crisis Intervention Team is composed of specially trained law-enforcement officers from the general patrol division who work in cooperation with mental health professionals to manage crisis situations and direct the individual to mental health care and resources.

“Often it is the combination of psychopharmacology or medication, therapeutic interventions and the development of enhanced support systems that have the best outcomes for those afflicted with mental illness,” Morrow says. “Medications have advanced significantly with the development of new antidepressants, mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications that have greatly reduced side-effect profiles. Advancements in therapeutic approaches include specialized treatments for anxiety disorders, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for personality disorders, trauma-informed approaches, etc.”

No disease should go untreated until it’s too late. Become aware and get help if mental illness affects you or someone you love.

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