May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Why should the average person care about that? Perhaps these facts will help:

  • One in five (46.6 million) people suffer from mental illness in the United States.
  • Ninety percent of all who die by suicide suffer from a mental illness.
  • The most common mental disorder is anxiety. It affects 18.1 percent of adults and 25.1 percent of children.
  • We’ve seen a 33 percent increase in suicides since 1999.
  • Fifty percent of all mental illnesses begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24.
  • Suicide was the No. 2 cause of death for children and young adults from age 10 to age 24 in 2017.

Your reaction to all of this is probably “OK this is a big problem, but what can I do about it?” Of course, there is no one specific answer, but here are a few ideas:

  • Have mental health conversations with kids. Let them know that it’s alright to feel sad, angry or scared.
  • Support mental health initiatives in schools. Schools are the exact right place to develop a culture conducive to mental health. Encourage a curriculum that fosters an environment of kindness and inclusiveness. Make sure they have the interest of every single child in mind.
  • Participate in a fundraising event for mental health research or suicide prevention. Or just donate to one.
  • Reach out to people who are struggling. Have the hard conversations. Ask direct questions like “You’ve seemed very quiet lately. Is everything OK?” See the NAMI or the AFSP websites for more specific ideas and guidelines.
  • Follow up with your friends. In a recent study, it was shown that people who were struggling were more likely to recover if they had consistent follow up. Send them text messages, call them, let them know you care. If they don’t respond, keep connecting anyway.

Yes, there’s a lot to do, but in spite of all that still needs to be done, it’s important to note that there are positive things happening as well. At Minnetonka High School, there is a student-run organization called MHS Wellness. Last week, they painted the rock in front of the school green for Mental Health Awareness. They wrote “Mental Health Matters” on the rock. Then they painted the initials of each student that has died as the result of mental health issues since the current seniors were freshmen. I see my Ana’s “AP” in the front and my heart is so touched. To the parents of these students: You have raised some stellar individuals. To these kids: You are amazing. Keep doing all the amazing things you’re doing. The world needs all your amazingness. To the students in other school districts: Please feel free to copy and/or make up your own versions. Legendary acts of kindness and commitment to good causes should be replicated. Whatever your form of recognition, fundraising or honor is, it will make a difference. We are fighting a big battle and we need everyone to help stop the stigma of mental illness.

Toni Plante grew up in Wayzata. She lives in Minnetonka with her husband, Al, and their two dogs. Her remaining child, Leo, lives in NYC. She, her family and extended family all miss Ana terribly. Suicide prevention and mental health are her passion. She is not a therapist or a counselor. She is a parent who is committed to making a difference by sharing her experience.

This column is meant to offer insight and awareness, not advice. If you have suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

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