It is World Mental Health Day. Again. Deep joy. Another awareness day.
I have a deep and unwavering suspicion of the word ‘awareness’. I need to make clear here that I’m not against awareness in itself – but with how the word is used in today’s culture. Awareness is fast becoming an incredibly toxic word, not because I think people should be unaware, but because raising awareness is a convenient substitute for engaging with causes and solutions.
What does it mean to be aware at this point in a mental health context? That feelings of mental distress, anxiety, despair, madness are very very real? Maybe at the turn of the century, the goal of raised awareness was enough because of where we were as a society. Today we need more. The metaphor of awareness as a lightbulb moment is an apt one. It illuminates a situation, a problem, a state of affairs, but I’d submit that we have a set of spotlights firmly fixed on ‘mental health’ – and I use those inverted commas because we too often actually mean mental ill-health or distress – the spotlights are shining on this, we’ve had endless campaigns and hashtags telling us that it’s time to talk, and that it’s OK to not be OK. We get it. Or at least enough of us do that we need more. The problem has been fully lit up, so what are we to do about it.
When you visit the WHO website about World Mental Health Day, it’s striking how much it talks about building resilience. To quote directly:
Fortunately, there is a growing recognition of the importance of helping young people build mental resilience, from the earliest ages, in order to cope with the challenges of today’s world. Evidence is growing that promoting and protecting adolescent health brings benefits not just to adolescents’ health, both in the short- and the long-term, but also to economies and society, with healthy young adults able to make greater contributions to the workforce, their families and communities and society as a whole.
Now, resilience has it’s place in the story of promoting mental wellbeing to be sure. But something about this narrative feels really really uncomfortable for me. And I think it comes down to where the burden of change is put. It’s about putting those in mental distress on a path to deal with their symptoms and experiences. We’re going to read a lot about the importance of physical exercise, healthy eating, better sleep, use of medication, lots and lots of use of the term ‘self-care’ which can mean anything from withdrawing from hectic situations, to pushing oneself into more interaction. But notice that all of these solutions and suggestions, although they undoubtedly have their place, put all the emphasis on the mentally unwell (for want of a better term) to make themselves better.
I am not arguing for getting rid of that sense of autonomy here. Indeed far from it. But let’s look at putting that emphasis not purely on the individual. We live in a society of vast inequality, increasing political divides and a rise of authoritarianism across the world, where a younger generation does not necessarily have as good life opportunities as their parents, problems of housing, employment and a thankfully now more in focus spectre of global climatic disaster. Where is any of this in the literature and campaigns around mental health? Where is the acknowledgement of a patriarchal society which continually shits on women, ethnic minorities, the poor, the disabled, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and other disadvantaged groups? The WHO and organisations like it can point out a growing mental health epidemic (and notice the medical construct in that terminology), but then put all of it’s eggs in the resilience basket. Why? Because to give any credence to the social factors playing into this rising tide of mental distress brings up fundamental questions that rather like climate change, challenge a status quo that those in power both do not want to, and do not know how to alter.
So the status quo prevails. And what it essentially ends up doing is akin to the victim blaming of those who’ve gone through sexual assault. Just as the narrative is around what women can do to keep themselves safe, we have a narrative of what those in mental anguish can do to make themselves feel differently. There is of course, a space for this. But it must not be the foremost question. Instead of looking at what the mentally unwell can do to heal themselves, the WHO and bodies like it need to address what our cultures need to do in order to not make people unwell in the first place.
This is not a question of blaming our culture for all of a person’s ills. But when we purposely ignore these things, we can do nothing to change them.