Tears pooled in the corners of her eyes. “I hate the holidays,” my friend said. She reached for a napkin on the restaurant table and dabbed at the wetness before it had a chance to fall down her cheeks. What she had, people used to call the “holiday blues,” something not unusual during the Christmas season. Maybe some people still call it that. Not my friend. Not me.

You see, she had this depression during the Christmas season and during the Easter season, and she still has it. For some of us, those “blues” never cease, and the feelings go much deeper than a temporary experience. It’s an illness, same as diabetes and any other serious, chronic illness. The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and a good time to pay extra attention to people such as my friend.

My friend experienced her first depressive episode 40 years ago. My first knockout episode struck about 35 years ago. We weren’t given our official diagnoses of major clinical depression until years later when in retrospect we could see how it had been lurking all along. In my case, I likely never will know what caused the illness to break through and stubbornly refuse to dive back into hiding.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that “a mental illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood may affect and his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis.”

These are the illnesses and conditions listed on www.NAMI.org as mental illnesses: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and schizophrenia.

NAMI estimates that one in five people experience a mental health condition each year, with one in 20 living with a serious mental illness. For instance, about 16 million American adults – seven percent of the population – had at least one major depressive episode last year. An estimated 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder.

If you don’t have a diagnosable mental illness, you probably know someone who does. Of course, you might not realize it. There is a stigma attached to mental illness, which often means the people keep their situation a secret.

To give the month of May some extra meaning, here are some things you can do:

  1. Be aware of any possible symptoms you might be having and discuss them with your primary care doctor, perhaps as part of a complete annual physical exam. There are physical causes of depression, for example, thyroid conditions and certain vitamin deficiencies. Sometimes symptoms can be dramatically eased by changes in diet or getting regular exercise.
  2. Recognize those people in your circle of family, friends and even acquaintances who might be suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or some other mental illness. Perhaps you already know someone who has been diagnosed as such. Reach out to them. Politely and lovingly ask how they are doing. Perhaps offer to make dinner for them. Pray for them – and tell them you are doing so. Perhaps offer to be a “compassionate companion;” you might not understand everything they experience, but you can listen and care.
  3. Notice people in your life who might be trying to deal with considerable grief, which can be a trigger for depression. Kindly reach out to them to listen to their thoughts or simply be present to them.
  4. Seek out the elderly in your life, many of whom might be shut-ins, living apart from much of society in a nursing facility or simply dealing with profound loneliness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “it is estimated 20% of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern. Men aged 85 years or older have a suicide rate of 45.23 per 100,000, compared to an overall rate of 11.01 per 100,000 for all ages.” Simply spend time with senior relatives and friends to let them know you care and engage them in some kind of activity with you.

Visit www.nami.org and find an affiliate of NAMI near you – there is one in every state, as it’s the largest grassroots organization dedicated to mental health in the country. Almost every affiliate is holding an awareness walk this month. Read the online stories of those who will be walking. Sign up to participate. Make a donation to one of the walk teams to help support NAMI’s free services to those who suffer from a mental illness and their family members.

If you already know that you suffer from a mental illness, don’t be shy about sharing your story with people. That’s the best way to increase awareness and erase the stigma.