By Robin Brinkworth - What does awareness mean in an environment where mental health largely has no stigma, where students are aware of mental health illnesses. What does it mean in universities?
Mental Health Awareness week (MHA week) is still an important date on the calendar: it gives publishers, workplaces, and schools an opportunity to address mental health issues in public, in an open forum. Yet while schools still have a key role in educating pupils about mental health, and workplaces are still all too frequently less aware than they should be, British universities have slowly become places where the value of good mental health is understood. What does awareness mean in an environment where mental health largely has no stigma, where students are aware of mental health illnesses, of their friends who suffer them, and how they are affected by them?
Firstly, universities are not perfectly aware environments with no stigma. There is still some stigma, and first and second year students are more likely to not be aware than third, fourth and above year students: education still needs to occur, with a large part of it coming from lived experience, rather than any formal process. Living with flatmates who have depression is such an experience, as is having anxiety yourself, or talking to a friend whose boyfriend or girlfriend is dealing with PTSD. Education and understanding come relatively quickly.
Don’t devalue a good thing
Where does that leave MHA week then? It still fulfils some of its role in education certainly, but it is clearly less needed in that role then say, for example, traditional blue-collar workplaces. The traditional message of MHA week in large part no longer works for universities, because they are aware already. How can students and universities turn it into something more?
As someone who graduated in the summer of 2017 and ran a student publication while I was at Edinburgh, I became at times frustrated with student writing on mental health. Often entirely anecdotal (he writes anecdotally), it often revolved around the same important but tired messages: ‘fight the stigma’, and ‘mental illnesses are bad’. While these are certainly true and important messages, they sometimes felt meaningless when repeated with no differentiation, defeating the point of MHA week.
What students and universities can use the MHA week for
Instead of using MHA week to trot out the same messages, those of us in aware environments should look to do more. Instead of writing ‘fight the stigma’, consider something actionable, like organising an hour-long workshop for your sports team, society, or workplace. Instead of saying ‘mental illnesses are bad’, consider writing about what support is available at university or nearby for those currently suffering, and whether that support is up to scratch. Write about your personal experience, use it to educate friends, use it to lever support and make change. Get into policy, and protest if you need to! Lastly, do what we often do without thinking: offer yourself as an ear for those who might need one.
The future of Mental Health Awareness week
Mental health awareness is an extraordinary thing. That awareness has been hard fought by generations before us, raising issues, fighting actual stigma, and developing a knowledge base for young people to build on. It would be a terrible shame if we didn’t build on it. We’re now at that point where we should be looking to make change everywhere we can, even if it just giving a friend a moment of your time. Mental health is far too important for us to rest on our laurels.
While I have picked out universities and students particularly, the same problems exist in other aware spaces. For many people in those spaces, MHA week has become a reason to tweet, or an excuse to write their annual column on mental health, copy-pasted from the year before. We’re better than that. Let’s use MHA week as a reason to talk about mental health, certainly. Just don’t stop. Keep writing about it, keep talking about it, and turn those words into something greater. And for those who aren’t in aware environments, use MHA week as it always has been. I wish you the best of luck.
Robin Brinkworth is a guest-blogger for Minddistrict and is web-editor for The Student View