When there is something wrong with our bodies, we take it seriously. We go to the doctor to try to figure out what is wrong and find a solution. Our friends and family come to our aid and offer support. Physical illnesses, as difficult as they are, can grow our mental strength and bring out the best in those who care about us.

But what happens when there is something wrong with us mentally? How do we respond? What about our family and friends?

When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, for example, we often start Facebook pages, hold rallies, and raise funds to support the person who is suffering. And I think that is great; it shows how strong all of us can be in a time of difficulty. But are we willing to show that kind of support to those who are suffering from mental illness?

When we see someone suffering from depression, for example, we might look the other way or hesitate to be around them. We might blame the person who is suffering. We may think certain behaviors of theirs are unacceptable and that it’s up to them to change their attitude or to make the choice to be happy. But it’s not that simple. 

Now I’m not saying we have to start a Facebook page or hold a rally in support of someone suffering from anxiety or depression. The point I want to make is that we don’t take mental illness as seriously as we should. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps the problem is that we don’t see mental illness as, well, an illness. We see it as a lifestyle choice. We assume it’s a result of our circumstances and that if something bad happens to us, we can choose to be depressed or choose to get over it. It’s true that bad things that happen to someone can lead to depression, but there are many inherent causes of mental illness, both physical and mental. This is not an excuse to avoid doing anything about it, but it’s easier to do something if we view mental health as something we need to treat and maintain in the same way we do with our physical bodies.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five Americans – both children and adults – will deal with a mental illness this year. Think about that: Of all the people you encounter every day, one in five of them are fighting a battle inside themselves that you know little or nothing about. Remember that when interacting with other people each day. Or maybe you are one of those who are suffering, and you wish that other people understood or that you knew where to go for help.

When Lincoln Township Public Library created its new strategic plan last year, we identified mental health as a big issue in our community that we want to address. As the head of public services at the library, I felt it important that I step up to spearhead an initiative to bring more awareness to mental health and to hopefully remove some of the stigma that comes from suffering.

This initiative features a few components: Programming is scheduled for patrons to learn more about mental health conditions, and more nonfiction books have been ordered for patrons to read and learn more about mental health on their own. Several area organizations have been contacted to collect handouts for the public, both on mental health information and places our patrons can go to seek help. If you believe your organization can help, I encourage you to please visit lincolnlib.org and contact us. 

While the library can support you in learning about mental health, as it can help you in so many other ways, ultimately it is up to the rest of us to change the way we respond to mental illness. To those who know someone who is suffering: Do not turn your back on them. They need you more than ever before. 

To those who are suffering: Don’t feel ashamed. Don’t feel like you’re any less of a person because of what you’re going through. And don’t back down from your struggle. Seek help. Be open and honest, both with yourself and others, about what you’re going through.

And finally, know that you’re not alone in your struggle. If we all work together, we can bring hope to those who need it and defeat mental illness.

Brian Johnston lives in St. Joseph with his wife and two children. You can find him on Facebook at facebook.com/brianjohnstonwriter.