As ambitious young women, it is natural for everyone to get a little stressed. For some people, this is the time of year when episodes of anxiety and depression hit. Addressing these issues can be uncomfortable, but in this time of year it is more important than ever that we put our mental health first and have a real conversation about mental health care.

First, it’s important to understand and appreciate the difference between being stressed about a test or being sad about being away from our family and anxiety or depression. While we all feel a range of emotions, individuals suffering from mental illness tend to experience extreme emotions over a period of time and in a way that inhibits normal functioning.

While casual episodes of depression or anxiety can be assisted with a lifestyle change, mental illness works like all illnesses, it must be treated with a range of therapies and/or medications based on the patients needs.

It’s important to note that today’s doctors overwhelmingly agree mental illness is a cognitive condition, outside a person’s control, affecting all classes, age groups, races, and nationalities. Despite the evidence which defends that mental illness is medical condition just like any other, stigma pervades throughout society preventing many from receiving the  treatment they need.

Combating stigma

A study based out of New York from the International Journal of Social Psychiatry found that conservatives were more likely to misunderstand mental illness and avoid individuals with mental illness than their liberal counterparts. While this is disheartening, it is not surprising. As conservatives, we tend to believe in a “pick yourself up from your bootstraps” mentality. We value independence, hard work, and clear goals. Often individuals with mental illness are depicted as lazy and shortsighted.

This misunderstanding of mental illness perpetuates the idea that individuals with mental health struggles are weak, when in reality, they just need help. With the understanding that mental illness is an illness, not a choice, there are things we can all do to combat the stigma against mental health within our community.

It is important to be educated on mental illness so you can discuss the issue appropriately, take the time to read and share stories of recovery. When a high profile celebrity commits suicide, it can be easy to post about their struggle and offer support, but we must be careful not to glorify suicide. Being an advocate for mental illness means showing care and support all the time, not just when mental illness is making headlines.

When talking to individuals who have struggled with mental illness we must show compassion. Remember, they are no weaker or less intelligent because of their struggles. Just like someone should never experience shame for taking medicine when they have the flu, understand that if someone chooses medication for their mental illness, they should be supported and encouraged, not talked down to.

Making little changes in our language can also prevent stigma. For example, saying liberals are mentally ill when they do something ridiculous does not further our cause; it sends a message that anyone we don’t agree with, think is dumb, or find laughable is mentally ill. This ostracizing conservatives with mental illness and equates mental illness with something that is bad or wrong.

More than anything, the best way to combat mental health stigma is to be a support system for those around you because you never know what people are dealing with internally.

Make it a goal to listen more than you talk.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests, “Reduce any defensiveness by sharing your feelings and looking for common ground. Speak at a level appropriate to their age and development level. Keep in mind that mental illness has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. Be aware of a person becoming upset or confused by your conversation with them.”

A full list of tips for talking to friends about mental illness, including do’s and don’ts can be found here.

While helping your friends when they are struggling is important, be sure not to put your own mental health on the line to support someone elses. As someone with a strong desire to help others, I often want to be there for everyone, but since I have my own mental health battles, I have to be careful to avoid triggers and know when to direct people to real medical help.

You can be someone’s friend, but you cannot be their therapist. Always encourage your friends to seek real mental health care.

Developing solutions

While it would be great if combating stigma alone helped everyone who was struggling with their mental health, the truth is, many Americans lack basic access to healthcare resources that are necessary to treat serious mental illness. Like with all healthcare, upholding free market principles is necessary for ensuring stable access to adequate mental healthcare.

A side effect of Obamacare for many Americans was the requirement to change healthcare providers. For many individuals with mental illness, this meant losing coverage for the therapist or psychiatrist they had been seeing for years. Anyone with mental illness can attest that treatment is a long, difficult process and continuity of care is extremely important.

It is also extremely important that every mental health patient is able to find the care that works best for them, each case is unique and must be handled individually. This is something only the free market can ensure.

However, their is a reality that, currently, Medicaid is the largest provider of mental health services, and cutting Medicaid can leave millions without access to mental health care. This is just one of many reasons that Republicans need to push for comprehensive health care that decreases prices through increased market competition, rather than just fighting against Medicaid and single payer systems.

Mental health and gun control

Whenever a tragic mass shooting occurs, conservatives are the first to note the common denominator in nearly all mass murder is not guns, but mental illness. Yet while Democrats promote gun control, conservatives advocate in defense of the Second Amendment, but not in favor of any real solutions to address mental illness. This is a critical time when conservatives can promote mental healthcare and the protection of the Second Amendment instead of choosing one or the other.

While not as common as the left makes them seem, schools shootings are a problem and must be addressed. Inevitably, there will be schools where teachers do not wish to arm themselves and precautionary measures must still be put in place.

Integrating mental health discussions into health classes and ensuring school guidance counselors are trained and available to handle student mental health problems is a great way to help prevent tragedies like what occurred in Parkland, Florida. At the college and high school level, finals season can put extreme pressure on students to succeed and schools must promote a culture that values taking breaks and supporting each other as much as hard work and dedication.

Finally, growing up we get annual physicals, annual eye exams, and annual dental checks, so why not mental health checks? Recent research has shown that simply talking to a therapist or psychiatrist annually can help identify early signs of mental illness or help maintain healthy living habits. For troubled teens, this can help identify and address violent behavior long before it occurs.

Just like going to the eye doctor each year does not mean you are blind, seeing a therapist once a year does not mean you are depressed, it means you care enough about your mental state to check in and make sure you are doing well.

All these options can help curbs mass shootings without limiting our Second Amendment rights.

Now, once someone has been identified as having a mental illness, should their right to bear arms be taken away? This can be an uncomfortable conversation to have, since we are all entitled to our rights and people with mental illness should not be punished for their disorder.

It is important to remember people with mental illness are rarely violent and, in fact, more often victims of violence than perpetrators.  So taking away their guns based on the assumption they could be violent is unfair and perpetuates the idea that those with mental illness are a danger to society.

I have severe bipolar disorder and I was raised around guns. Even at my most depressed point, when I did consider suicide, using a gun was never a thought that crossed my mind. In fact, spending hours at shooting ranges has been one of the most calming and therapeutic things for me. I am lucky I have a therapist who I have seen for years who understands this and has pledged to defend my rights.

Unfortunately, if I was institutionalized for my mental health tomorrow, I would no longer be allowed to buy a firearm under federal law or own one at all in certain states.

Blanket laws that strip the mentally ill of their rights promote the idea that individuals with mental illness are inherently dangerous. Instead, I propose that individuals with mental illness be required to see a therapist who can determine if they can own a firearm or receive permission from their current therapist. Handling these issues on a case by case basis is the only way to ensure rights are secured and care is effective.

Mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health, when left neglected, the consequences can be just as severe. As conservatives, we cannot promote individual progress and responsibility without assisting with individual needs. Mental illness comes in many forms and we must all show compassion, respect, and support for those battling their own minds.

For a comprehensive list of mental health hotlines and resources click here.