Mental Health Awareness Week: Good Intentions, Questionable Results?

The Mental Health Foundation’s theme for 2019 MHAW

Another year, another Mental Health Awareness Week. But are we really doing any better than last year? MHAW has been running in the UK since 2001, organised by the Mental Health Foundation. These weeks, starting on the first Monday of each May, offer a valuable opportunity to fight the stigma of mental ill-health, which still negatively effects so many people in the UK, and throughout the world. Despite the 2010 Equality Act making it illegal to discriminate (directly or indirectly) against those with mental health problems, the strong social stigma associated with such problems is still a huge barrier to seeking proper care and advice. It is vital that we continue to do all we can to normalise the concept of mental health. It should be utterly accepted, just like physical health (although for many even physical ill-health is not treated with the appropriate respect and attention). Speaking from personal experience, I know how difficult it can be to talk to even those closest to your about issues you might be having, let alone employers, educators and professionals. As such any events that draw attention to issues of mental well-being, and get people thinking about their own health, and that of those around them, offer an opportunity to bring about positive change.

So in theory MHAW has enormous potential to change the landscape of the debate, bring these issues into the light, and embrace the need for a kinder, more compassionate society. But is this really happening? No one could deny that there are a huge number of events focused around MHAW which do grapple with the big questions as to how we bring about real changes and improvements for sufferers of ill mental health. But there are also a lot which are highly tenuous in their engagement with these issues. You only need to take a quick look at Twitter this week to see the number of complaints about employers offering events or activities for MHAW, whilst doing absolutely nothing to tackle the toxic working environments they are responsible for. It can seem that people and companies are only engaging at the surface level, in a performative way, without really stopping and thinking about what they can do to improve matters on a daily basis.

“Companies are only engaging at the surface level, without stopping and thinking what they can do to improve matters on a daily basis”

The issue is perhaps one of professionalism. There has in recent years been a huge and utterly unjustifiable backlash against ‘experts’. One thinks of this first and foremost in the scientific and political realms (think the rise of climate-change deniers and advocates of trickle-down economics), but mental health is an area just as much in need of experts. Our understanding of how mental illnesses work is evolving and developing all the time, and it is important that we, as individuals, not only members of the scientific community, do our best to keep up. In real terms, this means deferring to people who know better than us about how best to create a safe environment for those suffering from mental ill-health.

The problem with MHAW, not as put forward by MHF, but as it is implemented by companies, schools, and universities across the country, is that it focuses on easy to understand, surface level concepts, which lend themselves conceptually and logistically to cheap, group events. The MHF has, since 2013, given each week a theme; this year’s is ‘Body Image – how we think and feel about our bodies’. This is a really well-chosen theme, and one which feminists in particular can embrace. But this does not easily translate into standardised events. Last year’s theme was ‘Stress: Are We Coping?’ Stress is a topic which often gets picked up in MHAW events, as it is a problem that seems to offer easy solutions. If we’re stressed, then all we need to do is de-stress, and there are lots of widely available, capitalism-approved ways of doing this. Not only are these easy to organise, a group crafting session, for instance, but they are also incredibly easy to monetise. The proliferation of mindfulness products has been phenomenal, with hundreds of books, subscription-based apps, Youtube videos, and so on, all benefiting financially from being hailed as the answer to all your mental health needs. This is essentially a new way of marketing old products. Whatever you think of the effectiveness of mindfulness (or its originality), it is clear that the concept has been co-opted by a capitalist system bent on making further profit from the stress it is actually responsible for. This is similar to, although arguably worse than, the commodification of self-care, which I have written about previously. Here there is an even more direct link between the stress and the financial gain.

“The concept of mindfulness has been co-opted by a capitalist system bent on making further profit from the stress it is responsible for”

Once you’ve decided that stress is the enemy, anything at all can be labelled as a way of improving your mental health. The proliferation of animal petting sessions we’re seeing across university campuses is a prime example of this. It is also an example of the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of so much ‘awareness raising’ when it comes to mental health. Mental ill-health is not necessarily the same thing as having high stress levels. It is not the same thing as having a bad day. It’s not feeling a bit down but cheering up when something good happens to you. It’s not even obvious when it’s happening. Someone can seem cheerful, happy, and put together, but still be suffering from huge and complex issues. Cuddling a puppy isn’t going to fix it. Teaching students ways to calm down and cope with the temporary anxiety caused by exam season is a very important task; it is vital that we equip people of all ages and across all walks of life with the tools needed to ensure good mental well-being. But this is not the same thing as truly changing society for sufferers of more serious mental ill-health conditions, those which are more likely to result in discrimination and stigmatisation. In fact, this could even be counterproductive, as any symptoms are written-off, by the individual or those around them, as “stress” which we should be able to “deal with” be doing some mindful colouring.

“It is vital that we equip people with the tools need to ensure good mental well-being”

This is why it is important for these awareness drives to be led by professional, qualified individuals who understand how best to push for sincere and in-depth engagement. When these events are lead by well-meaning but relatively ignorant individuals they quickly become a parody of their true purpose. People mean very well, and are doubtless committed to raising awareness and reducing stigma, but by funneling their energy towards this type of event, they are aiming in the wrong direction. This type of event is easy, comforting, and definable – they seem to offer quick fixes to complex problems, whilst also allowing individuals to feel involved and that they are making a difference. By channeling this same energy into events and ideas which will, by their very nature, be uncomfortable, challenging, and not achieve definable, quick results, we could be doing a lot more to seriously fight stigma and discrimination. Changes are happening, but they are not happening fast enough. With GPs noting that they feel unprepared and under-resourced for helping patients with mental health problems, the Department for Work and Pensions continuously under-fire for its horrendous treatment of the disabled and ill, and while recruitment of healthcare professionals in mental health is poor, it is clear that there is still a lot that needs to be done to bring about serious improvements in the safeguarding and care of those suffering from mental ill-health. When legislation already exists (even though it is not necessarily implemented), it is up to people, interacting with people, to bring about cultural change.

I realise I have sounded very negative throughout this article, but I wouldn’t want you to think that I don’t support MHAW. I believe it offers a truly invaluable opportunity to engage with issues that can all too easily be swept under the carpet. But it is important that we do this through questioning, both society and ourselves, and accepting and embracing that these are not going to be easy conversations. It is by working through that discomfort, by examining it and investigating it, that we can bring about the real change our society desperately needs.

I would really appreciate any discussion around this topic; I make no claims to be one of the experts, and will continue to educate myself on these issues. My experience of mental health issues will not necessarily be the same as anyone else’s, and it is important to treat matters on a person-by-person basis. I’ve put some links below to resources that could be interest. Thank you very much for reading.

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