High-profile celebrities and nonprofits alike have the same message: listen to one another.

For more than 70 years, since 1949, the month of May has been recognized nationally as Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a time meant for breaking down the stigmas surrounding mental health issues and raising awareness for just how pervasive they are in our society. Nearly 450 million people worldwide contend with mental health issues, and now, with people isolated and fearing for their lives as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever to practice mental health check-ins on yourself and your loves ones. Health professionals across the country are also encouraging people to use this time to prioritize kindness, self-care and understanding.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unwanted changes to how all Americans live their lives in addition to fears related directly to the virus, such as an increase in uncertainty, altered daily routines, financial pressures and social isolation. Mental health disorders like anxiety and depression are known to worsen in these conditions, affecting the 1 in 5 Americans who experience a mental health illness, with 75 percent of those mental illnesses beginning by age 24. Nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. 

Fortunately, awareness surrounding mental health conditions continues to grow, with high-profile celebrities, artists and organizations joining the conversation and donating their time and resources to further the cause. Nonprofits like the Hi, How Are You Project, which is inspired by the life and legacy of singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, have come together with American Campus Communities to gather support around the world for driving awareness and furthering education about mental health and wellbeing. They believe that during this tough time when, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, more than half of Americans are suffering mental health-related issues — listening to loved ones, friends and neighbors and simply asking how they’re doing is more important than ever.

“We all have friends or family who tell us that we should just snap out of something when we’re feeling sad or angry,” says Sonia Krishna, a board certified physician specializing in Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatry and board member of the Hi, How Are You Project. “It's hard to deal with emotions, so when [mental illness] affects your ability to think clearly or process emotions properly, then you end up having a lot of these symptoms but you don't know how to rationally think through them or how to manage them.”

Krishna also emphasizes the importance of community during tough times and says that while we are physically apart there are still ample ways to stay connected with one another, whether through video calls with loved ones or by participating in online communities. 

“Now more than ever, we want to be a catalyst to amplify the importance of being able to openly communicate about mental health and well-being,” said Tom Gimbel, co-founder of the project. “Let’s all...take a simple pledge to ask others ‘Hi, How Are You?’ Together as a community we will make an even deeper impact to break down the shame and stigma around mental illness.”

Also addressing the question “how are you?” is Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, an advocate for mental health awareness who has been extremely open about his own struggles. “We are asked that question every day,” Phelps said during Yahoo Life's Reset Your Mind event this week. “But how often do we just say ‘fine’ or ‘good’ and move on? How often do we actually admit the truth — to ourselves as well as others?”

Phelps said that he wanted to open up because he wants people to know they are not alone with mental health struggles, especially during this pandemic. “So many of us are fighting our mental health demons now more than ever,” said Phelps. “You want to know my truth? How am I doing? How am I handling quarantine and the global pandemic? Put it this way: I’m still breathing,” he wrote.

Phelps called the pandemic “one of the scariest times I’ve been through,” saying that he has recently experiences “some of probably the darkest moments, like continuous darkest moments that I've gone through. They've gone on week stretches and it's scary.”

Phelps explained that mental health issues are an ongoing struggle, and, at the best of times, a constant work-in-progress. Opening up, Phelps said, has helped him.

Click here to sign the pledge to ask “Hi, How Are You?” and help the project reach their goal of 100,000 pledges to unlock a $10,000 grant from American Campus Communities Foundation, to expedite the creation of media, events, and peer-to-peer training programs that encourage open dialogue on mental well-being.

Published on May 22, 2020