I’ve been asked a lot recently how I feel about World Mental Health Day and other days of advocacy. Do they indeed create a much-needed space for us to discuss mental health openly, and are they really worth our time and energy?
Well, yes and no.
Personally, I feel awareness is important and will always be committed to it, because increased discussion about what various mental illnesses entail is often the first step people take in realising they may be living with a mental health condition. I live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which I don’t recall ever being without, but I only received a diagnosis for it when I was 17. While I may be angry about the childhood and teenage years I spent not having a name for what I was going through, it was generally significantly harder for people in the generations before me, who were often unlikely to ever receive a diagnosis unless their OCD involved more ‘typical’ compulsions such a tidying, washing or straightening things. I have frequently met sufferers at OCD support groups who have lived with OCD for decades, in some cases over half a century, and only received a diagnosis and help in the last few years.
Increased advocacy to the fact that OCD can actually take many forms (specifically in the form of public awareness and also better mental health training for GPs, who are often the first port of call for an individual who is worried about their mental health), meant that a GP was able to recognise what I was living with and refer me accordingly, even though my obsessions were predominantly around wondering whether I was a bad person, and my response was to compulsively make lists of things I might have done wrong. This process often took up the majority of hours in my day. It is no exaggeration to say that mental health awareness changed my life.
On the other hand, I too share the increasingly discussed concerns among those with lived experience of mental illness that our ‘days of awareness’ have felt fairly vacuous and vague. A look at any of the hashtags on these days will tend to show you content that is along the lines of "hey it's ok to feel sad!" from people who the day before were trolling some celebrity. The content often lacks any real nuance around chronic mental illness and what that might entail, and seems almost entirely geared towards the (albeit important to recognise) effects of short-term stress or periods of sadness and difficulty.
Another thing that makes me personally feel pretty uncomfortable is the way in which these days are increasingly hijacked by companies that don't seem to give a monkeys (often banks?!) on the other 364 days of the year. Employers also seem to often use these days as an opportunity to plug employee wellbeing, usually taking the form of an in-office massage or someone bringing in a cake, which is lovely, but doesn’t really address the far more systemic issues we should be talking about, such as the fact that a significant number of employees who have to call in sick due to mental illness are stilling offering a different excuse because they don’t feel well-supported and safe in their workplace to share the real reason.
Finally, and perhaps my biggest gripe, is that it's extremely frustrating to be told to "Just talk! Reach out!" when you live somewhere that mental health care is chronically underfunded. When ‘reaching out’ to a professional is likely to end up with you sat on a very long waiting list, or being told you are either too ill, or not ill enough, to receive help (I have been told both at various points), that is simply not good enough. You can pretty much guarantee that if you live in a country such as the UK with an administration which has presided over massive cuts to mental health funding, on these select days of awareness-raising their twitter pages will nevertheless trot out the standard instruction to "ask for help!" which begs the question, "Where from, exactly?"
In many ways, I feel more emphasis now needs to be on action than awareness. Awareness is incredibly important, but who does is serve to implore people to ask for help, when there often isn't really much help available?