It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: Breaking the Stigma Around Mental Health


“How are you?” We’ve all been there – forcing a smile and insisting “I’m okay” when really, we’re barely keeping it together. The anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness weigh heavy, but we’ve gotten used to burying those feelings deep down. Admitting we need help with our mental health can feel shameful. But the truly shameful reality is how many lives are derailed or tragically cut short because people are too afraid to speak up.

Openly discussing our mental health journeys, though difficult, is crucial for breaking the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding these issues. As we observe Mental Health Awareness Month this May— an observance spanning 75 years —let’s confront these matters head-on. Let’s educate ourselves about the facts, foster empathy and understanding, and encourage open, honest conversations. Together, we can build a culture where individuals feel empowered, not ashamed, when they admit, ‘I’m not okay.”

The Harsh Reality

The CDC data is staggering – suicide rates spiked a horrific 36% between 2020 and 2022 alone. In 2022:

  • Over 49,000 people died by suicide.
  • 1 death every 11 minutes.
  • 13.2 million people seriously thought about suicide.
  • 3.8 million made a suicide plan.
  • 1.6 million attempted suicide.

It is estimated that one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness every year yet only half of them receive treatment. According to NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the average delay between mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years! The consequences of untreated mental illness are devastating. We’re talking about suicide becoming one of the leading causes of death in this country.

Challenge Your Beliefs; Ask Yourself:

  • When I visualize a person with mental illness, what images come to mind?
  • If I wake up tomorrow with new feelings of depression, thoughts of suicide, wanting to withdraw from the world, will I tell someone?
  • What if I hear voices in my head? Will I seek help or ignore it?
  • If someone I love has excessive worry and fear, sadness, changes in work or school performance, extreme mood swings, or avoiding friends and family, will I reach out?
  • If the person I care about shuts me out, will I reach out to others and persist in having that difficult conversation when I recognize the warning signs?

The Facts on Stigma:

Mental Health stigma refers to negative, judgmental, and/or discriminatory stereotypes and attitudes towards people living with mental health conditions (Mental Health America, 2024). Even with national attention on the subject matter, there is widespread misunderstanding and stigma about mental illness. Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against people with mental illness are still very much a problem.

People may expect a person with mental illness to “look different” or “look ill” and may believe someone could just “get over it” with willpower. These misperceptions add challenges of living with a mental health condition. Often, people delay or avoid seeking treatment due to concerns about being treated differently and fear of discriminatory attitudes others have about mental illness.

Millions of people with mental illness, just like you, work, have families, go to school, play sports, have hobbies, laugh, and love. Mental health conditions can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or income level.

In addition, many individuals who develop mental illness are also diagnosed with substance use disorders (SUD), and vice versa. One does not cause the other; however, one may trigger the other. For example, people with a mental health condition may use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication (rather than admit to a professional they need help). Alternatively, those with substance use may trigger changes in brain structure and function that make a person more likely to develop a mental health condition (National Institute of Mental Health, 2024).

What Are Some of the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Mental Illness?

Psychological/Emotional Warning Signs:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger

Behavioral Warning Signs:

  • Avoiding friends and social activities.
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people.
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and having low energy.
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite.
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations).
  • Overuse of substances like alcohol or drugs.

Spread the Good News:

  • You are not alone! Help is available.
  • Treatment for mental illness is effective.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out if you or someone you know needs help.
  • Knowing warning signs can help let you know if you need to speak to a professional.
  • Mental illness is no one’s fault.

Checking in…. how are you? Are you okay?

It’s okay to not be okay!

Resources for Help and Information

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Homepage | NAMI
  • Download NAMI’s 2024 Mental Awareness Month toolkit  2024 Mental Awareness Toolkit
  • If you are feeling alone and having thoughts of suicide—whether or not you are in crisis—or know someone who is, don’t remain silent. Talk to someone you can trust through the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988 or chat the lifeline.
  • If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of mental illness, get treatment or help them get treatment. Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or text your zip code to 435748 (HELP4U) for 24-hour, free, and confidential treatment referral.

How We Can Help

Healthcentric Advisors provides resources to help healthcare providers increase awareness and education around mental illness and substance use disorders. Our team offers training, materials, and consultative services to equip providers to address the stigma surrounding these topics. Reach out to learn how we can support your efforts to promote understanding of mental health and addiction in your organization and community.

About the Author

Headshot of Kristin
Kristin-Rae DelSesto, MS, BSN, RN

Quality Improvement Specialist, for Healthcentric Advisors

Kristin DelSesto has more than 30 years’ experience in healthcare with a proven track record of advancement and leadership. She is currently a Quality Improvement Specialist working with the Partnership for Community Health for Healthcentric Advisors’ CMS QIN-QIO which includes convening community coalitions with a diverse group of providers in multiple healthcare settings. She is motivated and dedicated to energize the healthcare community to implement best practices and quality improvement initiatives that support safe transitions of care.

More Blog Posts