It’s currently mental health awareness week in the UK. I tried to find a blurb for what this is officially aiming to achieve, but mentalhealth.org.uk‘s page for the week is unsurprisingly vague.
I say unsurprisingly, because awareness itself is a pretty vague concept: it’s quite hard to pin down what it actually means in terms of charity and activism. On the positive side, people still find it very hard to talk about mental health due to social stigma – increased public awareness of MH issues could go some way to decreasing this difficulty. People being more aware of how widespread (and to some extent ‘normal’) mental health problems are could lead to more people being comfortable seeking help for their undiagnosed conditions, in theory. Mentally healthy people having a better understanding of mental illness could allow those with MH conditions to talk about their experiences more freely. The key word in all those statements is ‘could’, because ‘awareness’ is such a nebulous term that its impact is very hard to measure.
For example: remember the ‘awareness raising’ campaigns for Kony 2012? We remember that very clearly, and most people who were active online during that campaign remain aware of Joseph Kony. In this sense, that was a successful project. It created awareness. It made us aware. But has it had any impact beyond that? Did it cause many people to become activists? Did it directly raise funds to liberate child soldiers? Did people actually do anything beyond circulating a well made ad campaign and using a hashtag? Largely, no. This is because, when the end goal of a campaign is raising awareness, sharing something on social media is the extent of your activism. It’s all you have to do: make people aware, and you’re done. It’s paying lip service to activism without actually making any material change whatsoever.
This isn’t an indictment of ‘slacktivism’, a term I’ve always had problems with for a few reasons that I’ll cover separately at some point. It’s the concept of ‘awareness’ as an effective goal at all that causes the problem.
Awareness doesn’t give anyone a comprehensive understanding of an issue. Awareness doesn’t raise money. Awareness doesn’t provide resources or services. Awareness doesn’t log volunteering hours. When you set ‘people being aware’ as the end goal of your campaign, you don’t aim to provide any material help.
People being aware that mental illness exists doesn’t combat the epidemic of suicide attempts by people waiting for psychological care , nor does it lessen the twelve month waiting lists for talking treatments on the NHS. It doesn’t pay the (up to) £60 per hour fees for private treatments for those who can’t access NHS care in time.
‘Awareness’ also isn’t the same as education. It doesn’t do much to combat the fact that 40% of employers still think that employing the mentally ill is a “significant risk”, or that one in four employers believe that people with mental health issues are less reliable than others.
What’s the alternative?
As far as I see it, the alternatives to ‘raising awareness’ are twofold:
- Education rather than awareness – let’s be more specific with our information. We (or MH organisations) need to provide comprehensive education, especially to employers and authority figures, rather than simply making people conscious of mental illness existing as a concept. We need to be able to provide statistics and examples of mental illnesses, how they impact sufferers and how people without mental illnesses can be good allies to us. Let’s stop letting people off the hook by allowing them to share grainy Facebook graphics or retweet a hashtag and then feel like their job is done. Let’s hold our ‘awareness raising’ to a higher standard, and instead raise understanding.
2. Activism over awareness – awareness isn’t paying for the therapy so many of us need but can’t access. Awareness isn’t supporting the NHS to allow it to provide us with better services. Rather than simply raising awareness, we need to campaign and organise: defend the NHS and MH services, donate to mental health charities like Mind (who actually provide counselling and drop-in services) and to organisations like the Samaritans who provide a vital service for people in crisis. Find local advocacy groups and support them. Hold fundraisers and donate the money to well-researched charities that you know use money wisely.
Become a mental health activist in your personal life. If you’re an employer, be mindful of your employees’ mental health. Allow them reasonable adjustments and, if possible, provide occupational health or counselling services. If you’re a friend to a mentally ill person, be patient. Try to be aware of the impact of your actions and words (everyone’s human and you’ll sometimes fail at this – that’s fine). Be there for your mentally ill friends if they need to talk, if they feel alone, if they just need some emotional support. Now more than ever, when our access to proper help is restricted, our relationships with the people we love are incredibly important sources of strength. Same goes for families.
If you’re a mentally ill person and feel able to: be loud. Tell people openly and without embarrassment about your condition, the way you would tell them about a cold or a bad knee. Point out (if you can) when well-meaning people do something hurtful or make a mistake: enable them to be a better ally to you and to other mentally ill people they will know in future. Look out for your friends. Treat yourself kindly, but also be firm with yourself: sometimes self care can be making yourself take a shower, eating some vegetables or paying your gas bill. Stand in solidarity with other people in the same, or in similar boats.
Not everyone will be able to do this, and the ones who can won’t be able to all the time. That’s fine too. But this Mental Health Awareness week, let’s all pledge not to let ‘raising awareness’ be all we do for each other. Let’s stand together, go forward and look after one another in meaningful, constructive ways, and demand better treatment from those who are letting us down.
(And if you’re really stuck for practical ways to support a mentally ill person, why not buy me a glass of red? That’d cheer me right up).