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We need so much more than an Awareness Week for mental health

Sophie Cassel May 22, 2020

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. This year’s campaign, which runs through May 24th, focuses on the theme of kindness.

As we find ourselves struggling to cope with losing loved ones, job losses and the loneliness of lockdown, it goes without saying that we need to treat ourselves and others with added kindness.

There’s also no denying that awareness for mental health is important. Approximately one in four people in the UK will suffer from a mental health problem each year. We are nowhere near addressing the stigma that continues to prevent people from reaching out for help, and much more needs to be done to increase understanding and recognition of specific mental health issues.

But then what? Awareness alone isn’t going to solve the mental health crisis, though this is a misconception that these campaigns often create.

What we need is better funded health services on all levels. There is little point in raising awareness about mental health in a society in which people are unable to get the professional help they need from health services that have been experiencing devastating cuts for years.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash –

In the UK, a mere 5.5% of total health research is spent on mental health, and people are waiting weeks or even months to get the support they need. Last year, The Independent revealed that over 122,000 patients were having to wait more than 8 weeks to see a doctor again after a first appointment.

Too much focus on awareness also overlooks the broader structural factors that impact mental health. If we want to address mental health, we have to consider economic inequalities, and how these affect access to treatment. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed how low-income and other vulnerable groups will experience a higher risk of exposure and more severe outcomes if they contract the virus.

The same goes for mental health. Access to adequate treatment is increasingly dependent on income, just as the strains of low-income can increase the risk of mental health problems. And yet, Mental Health Awareness Week promotes mental health as a private affair; to be solved from the comfort, or slightly more accurately, from the confines of our homes.

It seems that all we have to do is complete this year’s kindness challenges, such as doing something to make someone laugh or sending an inspirational quote to a friend.

The framing of mental health as something that can be cured at home makes professional care seem optional and, I might add, deflects from its inaccessibility. Mental health becomes an individual issue to be solved by individual solutions — perfectly reflective of the neoliberal era.

Equally frustrating is the celebrity factor. Each year, mental health awareness week is yet another event for celebrities and royals to become the face of something. On Monday the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recorded a special radio message to emphasize that, as William said, “we’re all connected. And sometimes just talking about how you’re feeling can make a big difference.”

But really, talk is cheap. Celebrities fail time and time again to use their platform to address the underlying causes of the mental health crisis. Repeated each year, phrases like “we’re all connected” begin to feel somewhat stale. In the same drift, when mental health is best known in its hashtag form, it’s no wonder that it fades into obscurity at the end of the week. Until next year rolls around.

The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted more pressingly than ever that radical change is necessary to fix our broken health care system. We need to push for increases in funding for mental health services, emphasise the intersections of systemic inequalities and mental health, and reimagine the meaning and value of wellbeing. Ultimately, we need structures to be built which can support the conversation about mental health.

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