This is a reblog from Charlie Richards‘ blog Recolourising Life
This last Sunday (24/05) marks the end of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week. I have quite mixed views about MHAW for various reasons, but my opinion can best be summarised as:
We need to be encouraging action, not awareness. We are already aware.
When I say we are already aware, I am not just talking about the mental health community, but society as a whole too. We have come leaps and bounds since the days of calling individuals with mental health problems “psycho”, “crazy”, “spastic”, “disturbed” or “having a screw lose” etc. Time to Change reports that between 2008 and 2016, an estimated 4.1 million attitudes about mental health were changed for the better, representing a 9.6% improvement. (1) This is undoubtedly important, since 60% of individuals with mental health problems said discrimination is as bad or worse than the problem itself. (2)
Stigmatisaiton of mental health problems still happens, of course, but it’s far less endemic than even a decade ago. Unfortunately, serious and enduring mental health problems (such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and “personality disorders”) seem to have been left behind in this increasing awareness of mental health. This is a real shame and something that Mental Health charities like Rethink, Mind and Time to Change really need to think about in my view. Time to Change have recently launched their “See the Bigger Picture” campaign, which focuses on conditions which have seen less progress, and this is commendable.
You might find what I am about say surprising, or even question how I can claim to be a mental health campaigner whilst saying this. I don’t think we need any more awareness, at least not for common conditions like depression and anxiety. I think we have improved attitudes hugely since the start of anti-stigma campaigns such as Time to Change and the time has come to focus on lobbying the government to improve access to, and quality of, mental health services. I feel this would be a better use of money than the endless ‘awareness-raising’ events which seem to involve the same individuals each year talking about their inspiring recovery stories. This is all great, but ask yourself – who are we not hearing from?
The more I have thought about it, the more I have realised that we are least likely to be hearing from those we truly need to be listening to on MHAW. We don’t hear from the individual with severe agoraphobia who can’t leave their house and is struggling with the COVID-19 lockdown reinforcing their fears, or the person with schizophrenia who fears talking about their condition in case their boss finds out and fires them. We also don’t hear from the many thousands of people who are stuck in a punitive welfare system which fails to understand the nature of mental health problems and penalises people for symptoms of their conditions (such as struggling to attend early appointments due to medication side effects). We hear a lot from individuals with more minor problems who identify as recovered, and less so from individuals with chronic, recurring conditions that are utterly debilitating and unlikely to relate to the ideology of ‘recovery’.
This effect of hearing from a very select subset of individuals seems to be perpetuated by the charities themselves, who choose universally applicable topics such as kindness (MHAW 2020), body image (2019) and stress (2018). I understand the reasoning behind this. The Mental Health Foundation wants to encourage as many people to talk about mental health as possible. However, I think focusing solely on ‘generic’, more minor mental health problems has been problematic. It has had the side effect of leaving the crucial conversations around difficult topics such as suicide and self-harm, the validity of the ‘personality disorder’ diagnosis and the ugly side of living with a mental health condition unsaid.
In summary, I think Mental Health Awareness Week has had positive influences, but as a whole I question how much harm the unintended ‘side effects’ of the week of campaigning has done. Many of us in the mental health community are somewhat tired of hearing the same tired messaging repeatedly with no concrete action to improve mental health services. In MHAW, we are often told “reach out if you need help, there’s a lot of support out there”, whereas we know this is sadly often not the case due to long-term systematic underfunding of the NHS.
Awareness is not enough to save lives, we need action to improve mental health services to help the most vulnerable people to navigate often highly distressing and debilitating problems.
- 1.Time to Change. Our latest Impact Report – 2018/2019 [Internet]. TTC. [cited 2020 May 25]. Available from: https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/home/about-us/our-impact
- 2.Corker E, Hamilton S, Robinson E, Cotney J, Pinfold V, Rose D, et al. Viewpoint survey of mental health service users’ experiences of discrimination in England 2008-2014. Acta Psychiatr Scand [Internet]. 2016 Jul 17;6–13. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/acps.12610
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