It’s Mental Health Awareness Month. The last word of that phrase catches my attention the most — the word “awareness.”

Merriam Webster defines awareness as, “the knowledge and understanding that something exists.” Sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that our mental health is real — that it does exist and requires care and nurturing.

Even worse, sometimes when we experience mental illness, we can view it as a sign of weakness, rather than what it truly is — a health problem. That thinking trap can prevent us from growing and thriving, seeking help and receiving care.

Someone once told me that awareness is the first step to change. If we’re aware of an issue, we can determine its causes, describe it in detail and develop mechanisms for improving it.

So, what influences mental health and causes mental illness? We’ve learned that mental health, much like many other areas of health, is the product of our genetics and social context. In other words, mental health is shaped by our biology, parenting and many other life experiences.

Research has repeatedly shown mental health disorders run in families and that our brain chemistry and structures play a huge role in our mood and behavior. We also have learned that some of us are at greater risk for developing mental illness, merely because we have had greater exposure to and loss from stressful experiences.

How can we describe mental health? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines it as “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” It’s comprised of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors along with our social interactions and decision-making.

When this system is affected by mental illness, we can notice problems or changes in these areas (symptoms) that last for a significant period, impacting our ability to perform at work/school or interact with others.

In the case of depression, we might experience “irrational” thoughts, such as “nobody cares about me.” Those thoughts can make us feel sad or irritable, causing us to withdraw and give up on tasks.

How can we improve mental health? At the community level, it requires that we broaden our view of mental health, become aware of options for promoting well-being and implement those options. We can be proactive and intervene early, taking a strength-based approach to care.

At the individual level, we can develop the skill of self-awareness (the ability to notice our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) and learn effective coping strategies. If we know we’re struggling, we can let that awareness be our strength to help us seek effective treatments, like psychotherapy and medications.

We don’t have to do it alone. We can be there for each other. Through social awareness and support come resilience.

To me, awareness is key to our community and individual mental health. It’s the cog setting the wheels in motion.

Teen Health Center Inc. provides free medical and mental health services to Galveston’s youth. To schedule a mental health appointment, call 409-766-5713 or visit www.teenhealthcenter.org.

Beth Auslander, Ph.D., is the mental health director for the Teen Health Center Inc., and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

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