Arguably, there is no period in British history where people have been more aware of the issue of mental health. Our two most recent Prime Ministers identified mental health as one of the pressing issues of our time. Theresa May named mental illness one of the her ‘burning injustices’ that must be addressed to “build a better Britain”. The younger royals have made mental health one of their focuses. Given this attention, what is there left for the British public to be made aware of about mental health? More than you might imagine.
Beloved of PR professionals, awareness raising months, weeks and days create ready made news stories where the novelty is that awareness is being raised. 'Nothing much happening' is rarely news. Most days in the calendar will be host to one or more self-declared 'national' days, weeks or months. May 2018 alone is host to National Share a Story Month; National Walking Month; and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. It's also host to Donkey Week, Red Cross Week and Bad Breath Day.
When will the tipping point be reached?
For much of history, the realities of the lives of those who experience mental health difficulty were something those not directly affected were keen to keep from the forefront of their minds until a scandal appeared to focus their attention.
When we experience mental health difficulty, we can feel isolated, alone and anticipate keenly the possibility of others judging us.
Part of the terrible pain of mental illness is the way it makes us feel separate from others, giving us a feeling of travelling places that others do not go.
It is exhausting wondering how each new acquaintance might respond to us once they ‘know’; monitoring our every action to try to keep our difference contained; a life of crooked smiles hiding a bad tooth. So, in hope for better, we put our shoulder to the rock of awareness, digging our feet into the mud of the hill as we forever push onwards and upwards.
Awareness without action is sentiment without substance
If we can just make them see the truth of our lives, of our experiences, they will change; and when they change, things will change for us, too. The tipping point will be reached. But awareness without action is sentiment without substance. The time is right to do more.
Just being nice isn’t enough
Black History Month or International Women’s Day bring depth, richness and activity together under a banner defined enough to unify calls for action. And change. Both centre the people with which they are concerned. Few of us are likely to carry out cancer research in our sheds. An even smaller number of us had access to practical tools to save any whales at all. With those issues, raising money or exerting political pressure was appropriate.
With other issues, such as mental health, the issue requires both political and change in everyday life.
A sketch from absurdist comedy programme Limmy's Show captures perfectly the limits of awareness raising. In the sketch Limmy is watching television. As the end credits of the programme roll the continuity announcer intones: "If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in tonight's programme you can call the number at the bottom of the screen." After a moment's pause, Limmy picks up the phone and dials. "Hello is this the number to phone if you've been affected by any of the issues -" "Yes it is," a bright and cheerful voice interrupts. "I've been affected by some of the issues in tonight's programme," says Limmy. The voice interrupts him again: "Ah, sorry to hear that sweetheart. OK, thanks for calling, bye for now." Limmy hangs up. The sketch ends with Limmy looking direct to camera; half-pained, half-confused.
Everyone has mental health
Everyone has mental health, yet only some of us will experience diagnosable mental health conditions or have experiences that require specialist help and support from others. While advice to help look after our mental health benefits everyone, it can feel that positive messages about personal change can shift attention from the challenges those with mental health difficulties face. It can feel being that being nicer fills the space where discussion of change and support should be. And even being nicer has its limits.
Awareness must lead to change
In 2015 Public Health England commissioned a number of mental health questions to be included in NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey. They created two fictional people, Andy who was paranoid and heard voices and had withdrawn from work and social life, and Stephen who was experiencing lack of joy in his life and was struggling to get through the day.
29 percent of people wouldn’t want Stephen, who sounded depressed, living next door to them. 32 percent wouldn’t want to socialise with him but 71 percent would make friends with him. 35 percent wouldn’t fancy Stephen as a workmate or colleague and 64 percent wouldn’t be keen on him marrying into the family. 82 percent of people wouldn’t want him to look after their kids.
When it came to it, people had limits to how much they would change their attitudes.
Andy, described in a way that suggested schizophrenia or psychosis, fared even worse. 55 percent wouldn’t want him next door, 45 percent wouldn’t socialise with him, although 39 percent would make friends with him. 44 per cent wouldn’t like Andy as a work mate. 73 percent of people wouldn’t want Andy as an inlaw and 90 percent of people said they wouldn’t be comfortable with him babysitting. When it came to it, people had limits to how much they would change their attitudes.
The next threshold for mental health awareness is to begin to talk about what needs to be different
Awareness raising in mental health has been polite for fear of scaring people away. That corner has been turned. The unfortunate and awkward answer to the issue of mental illness is that beyond being nicer to those with mental health difficulties, those without them will have to learn to do things differently. For adequate social supports and treatments to be available to be available, society as taxpayers and voters will have to decide what they are prepared to give up. The next threshold for mental health awareness is to begin to talk about what needs to be different. If we stay where discussion is comfortable, things will not change. It is time to be braver and to trust others to follow our lead.