Content Warning: mention of suicide and discussion of mental illness
*Disclaimer: I do not speak on behalf of everyone with a mental illness and I do think the sentiment behind mental health awareness week is a good one. If you want to read more about this week you can do so here on the website belonging to The Mental Health Foundation – the founders*
May 18th 2020 is the start of this years’ Mental Health Awareness Week, a week where people shout about how aware they are of mental illness, how open they are to people reaching out to them, how wonderful it is that we can now all freely talk about our mental health without judgement and their top tips for practicing self-care. But for those of us living with mental illness – especially those of us with disorders more complex than mild to moderate depression and generalised anxiety disorder – Mental Health Awareness Week doesn’t mean a thing.
-According to MFHA England, 70-75% of people with a diagnosed mental health disorder receive no treatment at all.
-In England alone, 72 million working days are lost per year because of people needing time off because of their poor mental health. Imagine what we could do with those lost days and the money lost with them if mental health services were properly funded.
-In 2018 In Great Britain an average of 16+ people took their lives every single day.
While I understand the sentiment, talking about mental illness whilst mental illness services are grossly underfunded and mental health charities are severely stretched, doesn’t solve the mental health crisis.
I’ve been going to GPs asking for help regarding my mental health since I was around 12 years old and it was only January of this year that I got to sit in front of a psychiatrist (I’m 25 for context). I have been dismissed by doctors repeatedly, been told on numerous occasions that if I exercised more I won’t need therapy, I have had doctors sigh at me for wasting their time when I go back for the same issue despite them putting it down to anxiety (spoiler alert: one time it wasn’t anxiety). I have been refused any treatment other than CBT despite saying it has never worked for me, I’ve been closed to IAPT services for not being able to make one appointment, I’ve spent too much money on private therapy (which I’m really lucky to have been able to do), I’ve waited months for appointments, and I’ve had to beg my mental health team not to close me on the advice of a psychologist who had never met me before saying I wasn’t ill.
A couple of weeks ago I called the crisis team in a crisis and the woman on the end of the line was really worried about me being able to keep myself safe. She said she was going to get someone to call me straight back so I had to stay safe and near the phone. Four and a half hours later they called me back but I missed the call. I didn’t have the energy to call them back yet I haven’t heard from them since.
I’m not blaming them, I’m blaming the government for forcing mental health teams to operate like this because there are too many patients and not enough staff. There isn’t a DBT therapy near where I live and my only option is CBT despite research showing it does not work for personality disorders. I know there are people in similar circumstances up and down the country.
Mental health is not taken as seriously as physical health which is an absolute abomination. At the very least shouldn’t mental health awareness week have some element of fundraising to it? We’ve spent the last few weeks raising money for the NHS to treat coronavirus, we spend October giving money to breast cancer awareness charities, we have world AIDS day in December which sees a fundraising drive, so why is mental health relegated to sentimental feelings on Twitter?
Mental health awareness week has become another social media gimmick in a way. It’s a way for people to post about how kind and considerate they are and how their ‘dms are always open if you need to reach out.’ But how many people live up to their tweets when push comes to shove? I’ve seen people I went to school with posting about how they wouldn’t want anyone to have to suffer with a mental illness yet I’ve seen them being cruel to others. Hell, even my own mother likes to jump on the bandwagon and all my life my mental illness has been one big inconvenience to her. I know people can change and I realise that many people believe they really do care, but do they really? How many of them reach out to their pals instead of putting the burden on the ill person to pluck up the courage to ask for support? How many of them would actually have a conversation with you if you did reach out to them? This week’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme is ‘Kindness’ but how many people talk about being kind online and then go off to be anything but?
And does mental health awareness week actually serve to put the pressure onto communities, friends and family, to relieve some of the pressure on mental health services?
When many people talk about mental illness they imagine depression and anxiety. They imagine a few weeks of sadness until it goes away for a while, probably forever, and don’t think about anything more complex. Here’s an experiment: post a status on Facebook about depression/anxiety and then post one about an eating disorder/borderline personality disorder/bipolar/ dissociative identity disorder and see the difference in your engagement. If I share something regarding living with BPD the comment section is filled with tumbleweed… When it comes down to it people are too fearful of what they don’t understand. People are scared of symptoms they are not used to.
So what does that mean? It means that until mental health awareness week starts bringing to light the debilitating symptoms of more complex disorders, until they start sharing the real lives of people living with these illnesses day -in day-out, until it becomes mainstream to be able to talk about the more ‘scary’ disorders and until we start talking in less general terms about mental illness (NHS campaigns to get people looking after their wellbeing in the name of looking after their mental health, and the ITV ‘get Britain talking’ campaign is all well and good but it’s too general and doesn’t actually tell you anything about what mental illness or good mental health is), then mental health awareness week is meaningless.
But the charities at the forefront of this week are too underfunded and low on resources to be able to do this, bringing us full circle. 1 in 4 of us will experience symptoms of a mental illness at some point in our lives, which is not much better odds than cancer so we should be doing more than one week a year to offer our social media support, no matter how well-meaning the idea behind it is.
We need action and we need proper funding, and we need it now before more people have to suffer and die needlessly. It’s all very well talking about mental illness but if nobody’s listening, what’s the point?
If you need support with your mental health (UK only):
Call The Samaritans on 116 123
Text ‘Shout’ to 85258 to text someone when you’re in a crisis
Call 111 if you need medical support, or 999 if it’s an emergency
More Than 120,000 NHS Patients Kept on ‘Hidden Waiting’ Lists For Mental Health Appointments (The Independent, 2019)
Spike In Mental Health Patient Deaths Show NHS ‘Struggling To Cope’ (The Guardian 2016)
NHS 2018 Patient survey: Community Mental Health Survey
Delays In NHS Mental Health Support ‘Ruining Lives’ (The Guardian, 2018)
Mental Health Services Unable To Cope With Demand For Psychological Therapies (Centre for Mental Health)
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