I’m nervous to share this because it’s the first blog post I have written that isn’t all about me. I want to share my opinion on a topic concerning mental health as a whole; and it’s a controversial one. I worry that some Campaigns are causing more damage than good when it comes to understanding Mental Health. As a society, we have created a minefield of contradicting concepts that prevent us from moving forward in order to be helpful and offer support to those in need.
I want to address this topic for two reasons. Firstly, I have had discussions in the past with friends about this bug-bear of mine and some of my mates share a similar opinion. In my previous blog I allude to this:
“Mental Health is an emotive and complex topic to write about. As a society we have made huge steps forward in recognising the importance of good mental health which is great, but I don’t think we fully accept what poor mental health can look like.”
Secondly, I listened to Sathnam Sanghera in a podcast hosted by Elizabeth Day (as part of her ‘How to Fail’ series – give them a listen!!) and he explained pretty much how I felt about the topic, in a much more eloquent and sophisticated way. Thanks Sathnam – you have inspired me to go for it and write about my opinion! So, after listening to the podcast a second time, making tonnes of notes, reading articles and watching lots of YouTube videos to get to grips with this complex topic; I think have figured out how I feel about it. Even though I definitely don’t feel ready to share it with you, here goes…
Can Mental Health Awareness Campaigns do more damage than good?
I will refer to the campaigns as ‘MHA’ Campaigns from now on, otherwise it’s a bit of a mouthful! What are these? MHA Campaigns can be anything from news articles, videos, social media movements which raise awareness about topic of mental health and attempt to break the stigma that our good-old westernised, capitalist world has created. One really positive and useful MHA campaign is ‘The Black Dog’ which helps raise awareness and improve understanding of depression. It’s a fabulous way of explaining the mental illness (Find the cool video here).
However, one MHA Campaign that springs to mind which is less helpful is the popular #hashtag “It’s okay not to be okay” on Social Media. In the past, I have used this #hashtag in some of my posts on my personal Instagram but have since re-considered and I no longer use it. If you really think about the sentence, about what you are promoting, what are you message are you sending? My bullet points below explain my thoughts on it!
I wanted a second opinion so I chatted with a few friends before sharing this (@joy.bynature and @alice__kerr on Instagram) and we bounced back and forth the following points:
- Raising awareness for mental health is great! I want to highlight that I have no doubt in my mind the intentions of these MHA Campaigns are inherently good: They want to raise awareness for individuals struggling with mental health and try to break the stigma that our society has created. However…
- Slogans and hashtags can sometime’s have a negative on understanding Mental Heath, because:
- Hashtags are good for raising awareness but NOT so good for offer advice and the wording of the #hashtags are so important (we explore this further in a later point).
- Sometimes it’s okay not to be okay. But in the context of severe mental health struggles, most of the time it’s not okay. For example, we don’t want to spread the message that “it’s okay to feel suicidal”. The feeling of being suicidal is a valid feeling. However I would never say “It’s okay to feel suicidal” because it’s such a horrible feeling to experience and I want to help anyone who experiences them. Rather than shrug off and normalise these (valid) suicidal feelings, I think they need to be addressed head-on.
- This is where the use of #hashtags backfires. It’s too bla-zay and doesn’t encapsulate the true essence of what struggling with mental health means. Furthermore, everyone’s experience with Mental Health is different which is always important to recognise.
- Better examples that could replace this #hashtag include: “it’s okay to talk when you don’t feel okay” or “it’s okay to ask for help when you don’t feel okay”. These phrases are noticeably less catchy, so it doesn’t cut the Social Media standard. This highlights another issue – Mental Health is NOT a brand: but the fancy hashtags can put pressure on individuals to BE and FEEL the slogan rather than accept how they really feel.
This is why I feel strongly that the MHA Campaign ‘It’s okay not to be okay’ is detrimental for individuals struggling with mental health and at a larger scale, detrimental to society, to understand the true nature of mental illness. The main conclusion from our discussion was that mental health needs funding rather than fashionable hashtags.
(NB: There are lots more MHA Campaigns but I chose to focus on these two).
“Does society as a whole view mental health issues as a failure of some sort?”
This is one of the questions Elizabeth asks Sathnam during the podcast. I think Sathnam would hold a similar opinion when it comes to MHA Campaigns having good intentions at their core (I will have to ask him!) but the way mental health can be portrayed, particularly extreme mental illness, troubles start to bubble to the surface. Sathnam expressed some of his concerns with some MHA Campaigns and I wanted to share them here too:
- Sathnam made a really interesting point that the more common mental illnesses, for example depression and anxiety, have more advocates compared to the rarer and more complex mental illnesses, like Schizophrenia. There are very few advocates for this. (He is right – No advocates come to mind when I think of it. I feel lucky to have studied Psychology and understand extreme cases of mental illness more so than someone who may not have that knowledge). He says that most people would fall into the category of “Cross road to avoid” if they saw someone struggling with Schizophrenia in the street.
- My thoughts – I understand his point but would like to think I wouldn’t cross the road to avoid someone with Schizophrenia and struggling with it… I think its important to have empathy and patience in this situation).
- Sathnam goes onto explore a more complex point – he argues that increased awareness of mild anxiety puts more strain on the already stretched resources of Mental Health, which he finds frustrating due to his personal experiences. He argued this is one of the reasons why some people may be more scared of more complex mental illnesses. He went as far to say we were taking money away from those that need it most.
- My thoughts – I find this a very interesting point – and I’m not sure where I stand on this one. Need more time to think!
- Essentially, Sathnam argues some MHA Campaigns have created confusion for us – one example he gave was a MHA Campaign drawing similarities between anxiety and Schizophrenia. Although they are in essence opposite ends of the spectrum, some campaigns have confused them to have similar symptoms!
- My thoughts – this is a really interesting point that I hadn’t put much thought into before. Again, I need more time to explore my thoughts on it.
Sathnam also had a really interesting point concerning The Wellness Industry, which deserved its very own subtitle…
The Wellness Industry
The Western world, societal constructs and capitalism (and probably other factors) have led to the booming of a fancy new thing known as The Wellness Industry. Essentially, some companies are now making lots of dollar from us gremlins being unhappy. I agree with Sathnam when he states in the podcast: there are some magazines out there that set the assumption we are entitled to be happy 24/7. The wellness industry makes money from it.
I want to point out I am a HUGE advocate for mindfulness, meditation and treating yourself to nice things and/or experiences for your happiness and well-being. However, there is a line, and it can be crossed… Just in a more disguised difficult form to spot. I know I can live very minimally and don’t need certain things to be mentally “well”. Sometimes it could be good to remind yourself of the fundamental things you ‘need’ to actually be happy. For me, that’s, friends company, being outside, writing my positive lists and doing yoga. All of that is free! Try jotting some of the essential things you need to keep your mental health in check, you might be surprised how many of them you don’t need money for!
In short, the wellness industry exploits the struggles with mental health of individuals. Let’s remind ourselves that feeling unhappy is a normal human condition and different from depression. Congrats, you are alive! And no pill, 30 day mindfulness plan, or essential oil can fix that.
Food For Thought
“If you’re not embarrassed by the person you were 10 years ago, then you are probably not trying to live life deeply enough”
~ Sathnam Sanghera
Sathnam noted he was full of confidence in his twenties, and when he compares this to the younger generation today, he sees anxiety everywhere. I agree with him. It could be interesting to explore why that may be: Could it be due to the pressure Generation X feel to achieve, or is it linked to the instant gratification generation movement? Who knows?!
I hope I have put my ideas across clearly and haven’t offended anyone. If anything, it’s just good food for thought in this eerie time. What do you think? I would love to hear other points of view on this matter.
NB: This Lockdown period is the perfect time to go and check out Elizabeth Day’s ‘How to Fail’ Podcasts, and Sathnam’s hilarious Twitter.
2 thoughts on “Can Mental Health Awareness Campaigns do more damage than good?”
Great post Lauren, I agree, so many of these campaigns are well intentioned but are really just paying lip service when what we actually need is proper mental health service funding.
Also we (as in society) definitely prioritise the “more palatable” side of mental health, and tend to ignore the more “scary” taboo stuff like personality disorders (hate that term but it appears to be sticking!), schizophrenia, addiction etc. I sort of get what Sathnam is saying about these campaigns creating a culture of taking every negative emotion we have to mean we’re depressed /anxious, buuuut I think we have to be very careful, I know a few people who were deemed “not ill enough” for MH services when they first tried to seek help, only for things to get a lot worse further down the line. So it’s very difficult to prioritise!
Anyway, I’ll stop rambling now! Thanks for sharing. C.x
Thanks so much for your amazing comment and response to my blog! I agree with you actually — it is very difficult to be noticed with ‘high functioning’ mental health struggles in society today. Could be another interesting topic to explore!
LMB 🙂 x