Now the party’s over: what is World Mental Health Day for, anyway?

For the mental health community, it’s The Morning After.

Those involved in the community have spent the past month pushing the mental health message. It’s been taken to political party conferences. It’s appeared on talk show sofas. 7th October marked Bipolar Awareness Day, but was quickly eclipsed by yesterday’s World Mental Health Day, 24 hours dedicated to global recognition of the mental health needs of 7 billion people. For me, today feels like getting out of bed and surveying a field after a festival, taking in the cracked plastic glasses and the spent glow sticks, while wondering: what was it all for?

According to http://www.awarenessdays.co.uk, there are about 20 awareness days/weeks in the UK in October alone, covering everything from health topics such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month and National Arthritis Week to the hipster-challenging No Beard Day (18th October, if you fancy a trip to the barber). Meanwhile National Egg Week and National Potato Week will just have to fight it out as the nation’s favourite staple, since they occupy the same section of the calendar. Given that I was oblivious to the existence of all these special days/weeks, clearly there’s a lot more to generating awareness than just designating a day. But even suppose we are conscious of an awareness day, suppose indeed that it’s hard to escape that consciousness, do we necessarily know what to do with it? Are we, indeed, supposed to do anything? Is an awareness day a call to action, a call to contemplation, a call for celebration – or something else?

World Mental Health Day has been running since 1992 and is described by the Mental Health Foundation as “the annual global celebration of mental health education, awareness and advocacy”. This is slightly different, and rather more positive, spin than the World Health Organisation’s, which describes the overall objective as “raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health”. WMHD always has a designated theme. In 2012, the theme was the “global crisis” of depression, last year it was the mental health of older adults, and this year the focus in on schizophrenia. WMHD has widely taken up by organisations for as long as I’ve been involved with mental health, yet this year especially I have seen many individuals who live with a mental health problem asking how meaningful WMHD is to their own lives and whether it really generates awareness among others.

I can certainly see the reasoning behind having a focal point for bringing together and celebrating good work that is done rather more quietly all year. I can also understand the impetus behind trying to connect with people who might genuinely benefit from increased knowledge about mental health issues. I was, therefore, happy to speak at a WMHD event run at Bournemouth University on Wednesday. Late adolescence and early adulthood are prime years for developing mental health conditions, including psychotic disorders (Jonny Benjamin took part in a Q&A just before my talk and shared something of what it had been like to grow up with undiagnosed schizophrenia). It seemed to me to be good and useful to try and improves students’ knowledge of mental health conditions and the services that can help them (local representatives of Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and other support organisations had stands at the university to this end).

However, I’m less comfortable with simply marking awareness such days for their own sakes. As many people observed on Twitter, they couldn’t be more aware of mental health issues, thank you very much. Those of us struggling through on a daily basis don’t need our awareness raising, nor should it be incumbent upon them to do something special or attempt to raise others’ awareness unless they particularly want to. Aside from specifically invited to take part in a WMHD event I didn’t really feel that there was anything I could or should have done differently for the cause. I was somewhat disconcerted to be sent several very well-intentioned “Happy World Mental Health Day!” tweets, as despite the MHF’s stated aims of the day I have never had a sense of there being anything celebratory about the WMHD. If anything, I have frequently heard people complain that it is depressing, focusing as it does on huge, global “disease burdens”.

In the past I have felt able to blog when the day’s special focus has touched me personally, so I wrote a post when the topic was depression. Last year I had a story to share about the mental health of a close friend in her 80s and the reflections that inspired in me about becoming an older adult with bipolar. This year however I felt that it was not for me to speak or write on the subject of schizophrenia as I don’t have enough of an immediate connection to make that subject mine to explore. Yet I saw remarkably little on the subject anyway, and what there was felt drowned out in general “awareness-raising” along the lines of “Just talk about it!”, “You’re not alone!, “Read these four amazing recovery stories” and “One in four people suffer mental illness!” This is WMHD as a free for all, where any mental health topic or story or campaign is offered up as deserving of traditional and social media attention. I was uncomfortable with the fact that aside from some strong messages from Rethink Mental Illness and some personal stories, including this excellent blog from Katie Gray, the voice of people living with schizophrenia was squeezed out by the very event that was supposed to “shine a spotlight” on their condition.

There is a personal irony amongst all this. Having delivered my talk without a hitch, and having told the audience that life was good (and meaning it), over the past couple of days I have not been very well at all and have found myself closer to crisis than in many months. And despite everything I do year round to counter the stigma and discrimination around mental health issues, I feel nothing but shame about this. I feel like a fraud, like I somehow presented myself as something that I’m not. I have found it very hard to admit that I really do need extra help and yesterday I finally forced myself to contact my psychiatrist. I have never been so aware as I was yesterday of the shame that mental distress can bring, on a day when it felt expected that I would raise the profile of mental health even higher.

This is probably heresy, but maybe we need to scale WMHD back. I think we need to strip out any component of expectation that struggling people “should do something” to raise awareness. And I believe we need to focus on the theme, so that the voices of people with marginalized conditions like dementia and schizophrenia are not further squeezed out by a cacophony of mental health messages. Because maybe the festival has become too big.

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About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards 2013. Winner of the World in Mentalists Mood Disorder blog 2012. Regular guest blogger for the International Bipolar Foundation http://www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org/ Expert by Experience working with Mind training department. Working on The Incoming Tide, a bipolar memoir. Find me on Twitter @BipolarBlogger or at my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/BipolarBlogger
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10 Responses to Now the party’s over: what is World Mental Health Day for, anyway?

  1. Becky Bee says:

    This is a really great, well-considered post. Loved reading it.

  2. “life was good …. I feel like a fraud.”

    I hope I phrase this correctly – Life is a gift; it IS a good thing always. Simply because YOU exist, the world is a better place than it would be otherwise. Even when you struggle, even when you’re in crisis, your life/existence is still a good thing.

    To your larger point about mental health awareness – I agree it may be time to think about how to make mental health awareness days / campaigns more effective and appropriate. I think it’s unfortunate that mental health awareness tends to get crowded out by breast cancer awareness; not that breast cancer isn’t a worthy cause, but I think we have more work to do in changing public perception of mental health issues. With breast cancer and other types of cancers, the physical manifestations are more obvious an it’s difficult to deny that they are a Real Thing(tm). There is still unfortunately a sizable number of people that think mental health issues are really just a lack of Jesus as if Jesus a thing that one can possess.

    It’s such a broad topic – we could talk about various conditions, how they manifest, what treatment / management options different people have had success with, common misconceptions, common pitfalls, and so on – and have enough material to go on indefinitely.

  3. I have been struggling with the awareness message myself a lot lately. I do encourage people to speak up, but in the back of my mind is the overwhelming feeling that I am urging them to do something that will set them up for heartbreak. Not because mental health is something that shouldn’t be talked about, but because, at least in Australia, there is so much of a gap between awareness and being able to get treatment.
    In Australia there was also an awareness day, which I was quite vocal in my dislike for, called Zip It!. In order to participate you had to raise funds and then not talk for 24 hours. It was so against everything that is mental health awareness. It’s so against everything that people like myself and you have been fighting for, that is, that we get to a point where it’s ok to talk about mental health, that it’s no longer a taboo subject. When I raised my concerns on the facebook page, I was told to get over it (not by the foundation) because as long as funds are raised then who cares how it is done.

    • Ha, someone did something similar here and asked people not to use social media “in order to raise awareness of what it’s like to live with a mental illness”. Are you kidding me? You want mentally unwell people to have LESS access to support for 24 hours to “raise awareness”…?!

  4. roughghosts says:

    Seems it was mental health awareness week here in Canada last week. Not sure how or where it was promoted. There is even a conference in the city this month, but without $500 to spare it does not seem geared to those who live with illnesses… Keeping mental illness hidden still seems to be the modus operandii these days.

  5. Michael Tobias says:

    Totally understand what you’re talking about. I always love reading your thoughts and observations. Keep on Bloggin!

  6. csh says:

    Every day is mental health day for some of us.

    Great post, as ever.

  7. James says:

    Maybe you could share some idea’s with the promoter’s of WMHD? I mean that, not in a sarcastic way.

    Is the answer to increase (somehow) the main objective of the day, schizophrenia for example, or decrease everyone else’s participation and involvement about general mental health?

    I could totally understand if people didn’t want to buy into or participate in the day. If that’s the case, they could try to avoid twitter for a day. I know how valuable Twitter can be for people, especially as a source of support, but if someone doesn’t like the tweets they see, what can they do. A day off it and social media as a whole could be a nice break. Watch some films, see a friend who maybe feels the way. Take a day out of “mental health awareness/promotion”. Maybe plan ahead. Say to yourself, WMHD is coming, I find it quite annoying but a great cause, I’ll schedule in some alternatives to Twitter today.

    I’m not saying your whole post is about what you see on Twitter, but the principle stands. You don’t have to be involved. I can see how someone with your beliefs about what it “should” stand for can become annoyed or otherwise put-out about how the day “goes down”.

    • I’m honestly not sure how I could raise the point – as I state in the article part of the issue is pretty much everyone getting involved. The promotors are as myriad as the events. I don’t think it’s reasonable for isolated, mentally ill people to stay off Twitter. It would not be “a nice break” for many, it would be “not having contact with another human at a time of mental distress”. People don’t always *have* real life friends to see, or they can’t get out to see them because they are too ill, that’s the whole point. Lucky you if you can just take a day away and it be a bit of a novelty, most of the people I am in contact with don’t have that luxury.

  8. Good piece as usual C. Yes it feels like an enforced series of messages on WMHD> At a time where budgets are cut from the user groups – so much so my local group lost its office. I have little to celebrate. Life is tough and I would want more public health education o focus on how to access help than making false promises. As for asking for help- it is hard especially when you are productive at times and deliver great pieces of work. However no one is judging you and I hope your psychiatrist was empathic.

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