Is awareness enough?

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Social media is full of people sharing pledges to make time to talk, reassuring one another that mental illness isn’t as stigmatised as it once was, asserting that it’s ok to say if you’re unwell. And that’s great, because we do need to talk a lot more about mental illness and just how common it really is (1 in 4 people will have a mental illness at some point in their life).

But for me there are a number of problems with awareness weeks, days and campaigns. For a start, almost all the focus is on ‘friendly’ mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. I call them friendly because they’re not seen or depicted in the same way as ‘scary’ illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or personality disorders; neither are they mocked or minimised in the way that illnesses like OCD are. While increased awareness of mental health in general can only be a good thing, there’s a desperate need for the ‘scary’ illnesses to be brought into the fold too. There is a damaging misconception that people with mental illnesses are violent, an idea that’s expertly dismantled here by Dean Burnett. In fact research has shown that people with mental illnesses are three times more likely to be the victim of a crime than the rest of the population.

Another issue is that while it’s easy to take a few seconds to tweet or post about mental health awareness, for many that’s the extent of their involvement. Their sense of virtue and magnanimity may have increased but their awareness of the reality of mental illness hasn’t. A survey published last week found that a fifth of people questioned believe that one of the main causes of mental illness is a lack of self-discipline or willpower. That’s a very troubling statistic. Also worrying is the insidious myth that anti-depressants and other medication do more harm than good, or that they somehow zombify people.

And then of course there’s biggest issue of all – cuts to mental health budgets within the NHS. In the 5 years up to 2016, the 58 mental health trusts in England had around £600 million cut from their budgets. The average time it takes to access mental health services in the UK is almost 19 days, and NHS data shows that the number of people attending A&E with psychiatric problems rose by nearly 50% between 2011 and 2016. Successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, have cut the number of overnight beds available for mental health support from 34,124 in 2001 to just 19,249 in 2015. If you’re wondering what effect the lack of available beds has on people in desperate need of them, read Bed/crisis by Bipolar Blogger.

So how can we actually increase awareness of the impact and prevalence of mental illness? By sharing posts and articles by people who actually have those illnesses. By reading and sharing first-hand accounts of people’s experiences, whether that’s via social media, blogs, vlogs, books or any other means. Let’s make ‘awareness’ actually mean something and maybe in years to come we’ll see people talking about their mental health as much as their physical health.

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