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Behind the glossy facade of mental health awareness

You always hear A LOT about “raising awareness” when it comes to mental health. There are Awareness Weeks and Months galore for various aspects of it, each one distilling the unique experiences of literally millions of people into a catchy hashtag, easily RT’d and as quickly forgotten by idle timeline scrollers on their lunch breaks. And the awareness raising is IMPORTANT, of course, but being aware that something exists and fully understanding the myriad complexities of something are very different beasts. For example, I know that particle physics is a thing, but I don’t know what it actually means, or what people who work in the field do every day, or how it might affect my life.

The same has become true of mental health. Now it is a ubiquitous buzz-term shoehorned in to five-minute lifestyle slots on This Morning and countless magazine articles on ‘self-care’, to show just how aware everyone is that it is an Important Thing. The glossy, socially-acceptable face of mental health is all most people without experience of it are actually aware of.  Maybe a neighbour with a bit of depression, a work colleague with some mild anxiety, perhaps a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder on a Channel 4 documentary where we are encouraged to marvel at the fact people actually behave like this. It’s all quite safe and manageable and inconsequential, as if most people’s mental health problems can be sorted out by having a nice relaxing bath and some limited state-funded counselling sessions with an 18 month waiting list.

But this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath is the messy, unpalatable reality of problems too upsetting to think about, too uncomfortable to talk about, too difficult to address. New mothers with postpartum psychosis or PTSD, children self-harming, and people choosing to take their own lives rather than continue wrestling their demons for a minute longer. Coronation Street was widely praised for its sensitive handling of its male suicide storyline earlier this year, because it made people face up to an uncomfortable truth and brought the issue into their front room. It made viewers genuinely pay attention to the messages being put out there by those who know all too well the complexities of living with mental illness or working with those who are. But it is still too frightening for many to think that friends and loved ones, or even ourselves, could sink to such depths of despair, or experience something in their heads we just can’t comprehend.

So despite all the awareness raising, the stigma persists, the hidden cost to society of mental illness persists, the lack of true understanding persists. The public are increasingly aware of the importance of mental health but the impression remains that they would rather keep it at arms length, if at all possible please. Like anything terrible that can strike us down as human beings, we would rather think of mental illness as something that happens to other people; not me, not my family, not my friends. We are NORMAL.

But, like anything terrible, it can and does affect all of us, however indirectly, however untouchable you may prefer to feel. Sometimes it comes crashing into your life through the wall of your house when you least expect it. The normality you knew is turned upside down. Now you are all too aware of the reality that is ‘mental health’, and there it sits, forever perched on your shoulder like a malevolent bird, sometimes flying away and giving you some blessed relief, sometimes returning to peck incessantly at you. You learn to live with it, though it sometimes feels too tiring to cope with.

It helps to talk – the awareness campaigns always say that, despite the frustration felt by so many that the ‘system’ designed to support them is not fit for purpose – but it is true. And it is equally important to listen, especially if you have thus far made it through life in blissful ignorance. A little more understanding goes a long, long way for someone who needs you to hear them, even if you aren’t really aware of the difference it can make.


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