(Written by Daniel J. Potterton, FEI Chief Operating Officer)

Last week I learned from my 18-year-old daughter about a classmate who committed suicide just days before his high school graduation. The young man was well-liked and known for the care of his assorted pets. A month earlier, a local newspaper published a featured article about him and the award he’d received for compassion. After a 20-year decline in suicides among 15 to 24-year-olds, that number is now sadly on the rise.

I consulted recently on a call with a colleague who reported that an anxious manager and supervisor had a young employee in their office pained by commanding suicidal thoughts. When advised of the need to get the employee immediate medical intervention, the supervisor hesitated and said she did not want to “embarrass her.” Understandable concern, I thought to myself—but then again, when someone is having a heart attack or is in danger of losing their life, do we hesitate to immediately call 911? Do we worry the victim will be embarrassed?

When people suffer the distress of a brain illness exhibited in depression, anxiety, confusion, out of control rage, disorientation, substance abuse, etc., all too often it is coupled with the notion that something is wrong with them; hence the stigma of a mental illness. That same blame is not affixed to those who present with a physical condition that is clearly preventable but persists due to poor life choices.

Mental health can affect all of us. During any kind of a man-made or natural disaster, there is often collateral damage to those suddenly assaulted with the psychological pain and grief of having lost a loved one. These are not times for victims to suffer the intrusive secondary thoughts that something is wrong with them. Human reactions to mental assault come with a variety of potentially disturbing emotions. In caring for these victims, we advise and educate that these strong emotions are normal responses to abnormal events.

Our culture’s fear of having a social stigma because of mental health challenges is a public health issue. Each year, millions of Americans face the reality of having and living with a mental health condition. FEI joins with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), among many other organizations, to bring awareness to mental health conditions and fight the devastating effects of stigma. It can be life-saving.

*This is part of a series promoting May 2016 as Mental Health Awareness Month. You can now read all of FEI’s entries.