I’ve been observing a few conversations recently about whether the rise of Mental Health Awareness campaigns and training are a good thing. It’s interesting and a bit puzzling to me, so I’ve been giving it some thought.
I think the crux of the argument for many is that what is needed most is more / better mental health services. A sentiment with which I absolutely agree. Presumably some people feel that the money and energy focused on awareness should / would otherwise be directed into the improvement/increase of service availability. For me that is too simplistic. A bit like the Brexit £350m for the NHS idea. It was never going to happen but it’s attractive to think that money going a place you don’t like will easily be redirected to fix something you prefer.
Fixing Mental Health Services is about more than money – fixing health services is about more than money. (Which is not to say money isn’t needed) To recruit more staff, more staff need to go into appropriate training – and therein we have a whole other set of problems to do with the financing of and access to higher education, questions about whether the current training model is right, or whether more pathways might be helpful. While many people involved in mental health awareness work are professionals in one sense or another, a great many more are not – are volunteers, and often get involved out of their own lived experience of mental ill health.
So much of the resource aimed at mental health awareness is not taking away from anywhere else. I got into Mental Health First Aid training, and other forms of mental health support/advocacy entirely voluntarily through my workplace, seeking to support colleagues, and to make that workplace more understanding and supportive of people experiencing mental ill health. Something I knew was important because of the problems I had experienced over many years of trying to manage my own mental health – struggling to navigate the sickness absence policies, learning about reasonable adjustments, and having to educate a string of line managers about how they could help me to stay in work and deliver of my best for the organisation. I’m a Librarian. It fits for me – to help people to find and use the information they need to improve their situation.
I think Mental Health Awareness work can help ease the strain on Mental Health Services – though maybe not in the first instance, over time, increased mental health literacy should pay dividends.
We can ask the question – who is it that we want to become (more) aware of mental health? And why?
- Individuals experiencing mental ill health of one form or another, who do not recognise it for what it is, – who are in distress, and do not realise that there may be help out there which would mean that distress could be lessened or overcome.
One problem, of course is that increasing awareness in this way, helping people to recognise their own symptoms as being of an illness, (in exactly the way we try to teach people to spot signs of cancer, diabetes, etc. so that they can receive treatment, and hopefully increase chances of recovery) – they will seek that help and in doing so increase demand on already overloaded systems.
However. That is presuming that the only thing that can help all people with mental ill health is official, – medicines or therapy administered by a mental health professional. There are some, especially dealing with more severe and enduring conditions, for whom that may be true. But many more can find other forms of relief, once they understand what is going on for them, and explore the myriad of coping strategies out there that do not involve medication or formal therapy.
If, through mental health awareness programmes of one kind or another – a person comes to recognise their issues, and takes stock of their life to see if there is anything they could do to reduce stressors, or find something to help them deal with stressors they have no control over. Who make adjustments to their life and behaviours (diet, exercise, alcohol, caffeine, drugs, talking to friends, reaching out to peer groups, reading to learn about their conditions, meditation, mindfulness, creativity, etc….) and find some relief. Some of those people will find that their condition improves, so they don’t need to draw on services.
Ditto – some people who have not yet experienced mental ill health can learn more about the kinds of things that can affect it, build their resilience – so that they see problems emerge earlier and manage to see them off at the pass, before they develop into more serious issues that would otherwise have needed support.
I stress – this won’t be possible for everyone. But understanding your condition earlier, and feeling less embarrassed and stigmatised about it, means you are more likely to seek help earlier, which increases the likelihood of some form of recovery over time. And if some people are able to help themselves more, and don’t need to use services, then those services will have more capacity for those who have no option, and need that level of support.
2. Other people – the public, employers, family members
When you have a mental health condition, and you live it every day, you cannot help but be aware of it. (So long as you recognise it, as above). But if you don’t – if you’ve never experienced mental health related symptoms to the extent that they interfere with your life, unfortunately it can be difficult to empathise. To really understand what clinical depression means, or anxiety. The media and society has a perverse way of both trivialising and sensationalising mental health. When someone is on disability benefits due to anxiety or depression, the tone is critical, as if it is absurd to think that might be genuine, yet if someone sadly commits an offence, and their mental health history becomes known – they are pilloried and in this case it is a question of, well, it should be expected from “people like this”. Even in doing mental health training, I’ve had people tell me to be careful, “they” can be dangerous. I don’t think they include me in “they”, though I share the same diagnoses and experiences as the people they are talking about.
I will give people the benefit of the doubt they don’t give others. Emotions and feelings are strange, and we have a strange attitude towards them. In most cultures, not just my own. You base your opinions of the world and what is true on your own experiences and learning and if you have never experienced a state of mind which is so overwhelming that it gets in the way of your ability to get on with your life in other ways – it might be tempting to think that it can’t be true. That others are exaggerating. It’s not nice to think that that depth of suffering might be real, that such pain might be possible and yet not visible. However. That state of ignorance is what fuels stigma, discrimination and prejudice, and both makes life more difficult for people with mental health difficulties, and makes it less likely that they will seek the help they need. So we must try to educate, and make people aware of the reality.
Because just as other people’s attitudes can make things significantly worse – (especially family, partners, employers) – they have the power to help. If we can turn it round, and make sure that people understand, and are open to learning more, and doing things differently to support the person in distress – then we can revolutionise our communities and change things for the better.
That’s why I believe MHFA is a great programme, and I really want to make it work to be able to carry on having conversations, challenging prejudice and misinformation, helping people to help themselves, and those around them.