It’s the 1st of May, which means for our friends in the US, it’s the start of Mental Health Awareness Month.
Today I want to talk about what mental health awareness means to me and why it matters.
Mental health awareness month 2021
If you’re in the UK like I currently am, some of these resources I’ve liked to here may not be relevant, but the messages will be.
In the US, mental health is on the rise. 9.7% of children had severe major depression, a 0.5% increase from the last dataset. And with COVID, there continues to be an increase in those seeking support.
So while a US event, I want to recognise the struggles of all of my readers and give this month some space on my site today.
What Mental Health Awareness Means To Me
I want to start this blog by defining what awareness actually looks like for me.
Because it can seem that we’re always talking about mental health, and we can’t get enough awareness. These events are so long. Why not say, just a day?
As someone who experiences low mental health, awareness is more about space and messaging than the single act of talking.
Here’s what I mean by that.
I believe that everyone should have the space to talk about their mental health should they need to. “More than 50% of US adults will need mental health treatment at some point during their lifetime” (MedicalNewsToday). That’s a lot of people that will be seeking support, and all of them should be able to reach out to professional support, but also their friends too.
These personal connections matter. Having a support network of friends who you can turn to, who will be compassionate and understanding, has been crucial in my recovery.
And that’s something we can all play a part in.
To create the space where open mental health discussions can happen, it’s all about messaging. It’s using awareness events like this one to open mental health up and challenge some of the myths around mental health.
Every mental health recovery journey is unique. Everyone lives with mental illness differently. Most of my messaging to the friends of those with mental illness is you’re not going to know all the answers.
Being a supportive friend matters. Being understanding and accepting matters. This is not about trying to “fix” the person or make you a mental health expert. It’s about trying to maintain friendships.
So battling stigma, and helping open up the mental health conversation so that everyone who needs to reach out to their friends feels about to do so, is what for me, awareness is all about.
Ending mental health stigma
For me, stigma (and this was in a time before I was a mental health advocate), was the fear of perception, that if I said I had low mental health I’d be misunderstood.
This misunderstanding still occurs. Being autistic, I sometimes have a disconnect between what I mean to say and how it comes out, mainly around the tone/wording of which it’s said. But rather than be patient and accept my apologies, I’m shunned.
In the mental health community, this is the same. Everyone takes a different journey through mental illness and recovery, and there is no “this is what depression looks like.”
Perceptions around mental health are changing. Here in the UK, I would like to mention Time To Change, a now-closed charity that did fantastic work to beat stigma and open mental health up to all.
But it still exists. Two-thirds of one survey reported that they believed there was still a lot of stigma around mental health despite many having positive attitudes towards mental illness.
And on the surface, things are getting better. More employers seem to be understanding the impacts of mental health, with 54% lowering costs to mental health services.
But Mental Health America found that only 5% of employees strongly agreed they had a safe working environment for those living with mental illness.
I mention the American workplace because whether we’re remote or still commuting, it’s a place we spend a lot of our time. And that, of course, affects our mental health too.
In my experience (here in the UK), my mental health has been something that’s accepted without an issue. Part of that is because I’m public and open about that already. But I think part of it is a genuine understanding (or at least a sense of duty) to accept those with mental illness.
Where I’ve found stigma most prevalent is in private interactions with others. And this could explain the contradicting statistics of the earlier survey.
I still notice a judgement and a lack of understanding about mental health. In my experience, this is mainly from those who haven’t gone through low mental health themselves.
And as compassionate and as lovely as those in the mental health community I know (and they truly are some of the most caring people I have ever met), you do have to interact outside of that bubble.
And that’s why we have awareness events. Not just to help those with low mental health, but to reach others that may not know too much about it.
Mental Health Awareness Month gives us the opportunity to open mental health up and to allow for those conversations to take place. It provides a dedicated space for those looking to talk about their mental health.
But it shouldn’t need a month
One of the reasons I started Mental Monday was because I wanted to normalise mental health conversations. Because the space to talk about mental health should always be there.
And this isn’t banging on about mental health. It’s not wrapping people up in cotton wool and asking “are you okay” every 5 minutes. Instead, it’s about making mental health approachable so when someone needs to reach out, they can.
And as a supportive friend, mental health conversations are nothing to be daunted by. You don’t have to do the research or know the answers. You’re not going to be able to “fix” or know the right thing to say.
And all of that is okay.
The person you’re friends with is the same person before they told you they had a mental health issue. So your friendship should stay mostly the same too.
I find that having friendships where there is a greater overall acceptance of things like if I don’t reply or agree to go out helps so much. But other than that, I can still have a laugh and one of the lads.
And all of that matters.
Being able to have a conversation about mental health can be so valuable. You won’t know the answers or the right thing to say, and you can just be honest about that. I’m not expecting you to be able to “fix” me or magically provide some words of comfort. But a listening ear goes a long way.
And there’s a part we can all play in our interactions with others. Being more understanding if people seem under the weather, checking in with others more and giving them the space to answer truthfully if they’re not okay are all things that we can all do to ensure everyone feels able to have a conversation about mental health.
So this Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d encourage you to look through your contacts and check in with a few people. If you know someone is going through a hard time, maybe give them a call or ask if you can do something together.
It’s the little interactions that can sometimes make the biggest difference. So if you were intending on passing this month by as an outside observer, I’d encourage you to think about what you can do to get involved and help those who might not be in a good place right now.