Mental Health Awareness Week: Why is awareness so important?

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. For those who spend much time around me, this must sound rather exhausting. Barely a week goes by where I don’t moan about my symptoms, complain about stigma, or behave in a generally ‘mental’ way. Rather than another week of raising awareness, I suspect many of my friends would prefer a Mental Health Ignorance Week. Where I’d be induced into a state of quiet normalness, and the rest of the world could continue… Well… pretty much as normal.

"Ignorance is bliss"
“Ignorance is bliss” (This is one of my favourite pictures on the internet – I don’t know the original source)

And – if I’m fair – I’d have sympathy. For a start, I know how boring I can get when I feel motivated to speak. It’s like a terrible episode of Question Time, where the most annoying guest is given free reign to speak for what seems like the entire programme. So actually, it’s like any ordinary episode of Question Time.

Secondly, the modern calendar of awareness-raising is now rather dizzying. Never mind mental health, this week is also both M.E. Awareness Week and Coeliac Awareness Week. Last week was Sun Awareness Week and next week is Dementia Awareness Week. There’s an awful lot to be aware of. And not everyone is happy.

Writing last year in libertarian magazine Spiked, Frank Furedi (Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent) took objection and complained,

I don’t want to have my awareness raised, thank you

This sentiment was repeated earlier this year by Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill,

Please stop trying to raise my awareness

Though both make different arguments, their views are similarly venomous. To Furedi, ‘awareness raisers’ are intellectual snobs, motivated principally by a desire to feel morally superior. O’Neill views them as scaremongering killjoys, more interested in raising awareness of suffering than doing anything about it.

Raising awareness
It should always be clear why ‘raising awareness’ is a good and helpful thing. (Image from Why Your Parent’s Don’t Love You, a comic by @StevePAdams)

The instinctive response is to turn their libertarian argument around. If they don’t like awareness, they don’t have to listen. But that would be immature. Better to dismiss them as a pair of grumpy farts. *Blows raspberry*

Except, criticism is always worth a moment’s pause. Primarily because it can tell you a lot about the people doing the criticising. Furedi and O’Neill, for example, are clearly not a pair you’d want to invite to a charity fundraiser. Or a party. Or probably any social event whatsoever.

At the other extreme, criticism can also provide an opportunity to learn and improve. Take ‘chuggers‘. Those gap year fundraisers who hang around on shopping streets, shovelling guilt at anyone who mistakenly makes eye contact. Charities need money. And they do amazing things with that money. But I still find it sad that something as wonderful as donating money to charity is made to feel more like switching your gas supplier. It took a lot of honest criticism before things could change.

Yet I still find it hard to understand how something as harmless as ‘raising awareness’ can cause such anger. It’s not like running into someone’s home, dressed in a full Regimental Black Dog Outfit and throwing spaghetti (or de-stigmatising spaghetti as I like to call it) all over their furniture. Fun as that may sound. Besides, like I said above, if people don’t like it, they don’t have to listen, right? Except that sounds worryingly like the very opposite of raising awareness.

So what, if anything, can we learn from the frustrations of people like Furedi and O’Neill? Well, for one I think we need to be careful with our tone. Awareness shouldn’t be about judgement, so don’t judge someone for not being ready or able to listen. The world is full of suffering, none of which should go unknown. But I’m not sure it’s possible – never mind healthy – for any one person to be aware of it all. I used to be an avid follower of the news. Radio in the morning, TV in the evening, and a newspaper under my arm. I didn’t read it. I just thought it made me look sophisticated. But then there was a change in government. And now I find the news too upsetting. Every week brings another story about the vilification or punishment of Society’s most vulnerable. Which isn’t good for my cortisol levels. So these days, I’ve replaced reading the News with looking at pictures of kittens in cups.

Ahh... The 'Ignorance is Bliss' channel - otherwise known as YouTube. (Image from )
Ahh… The ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ channel – otherwise known as YouTube. (Image from Wisdom Quarterly)

Ignorance is blissUnfortunately, it’s also a luxury. And not one available to anyone with a chronic illness. I’d love to be less aware of my black dog. Not to constantly struggle with my meagre energy levels. Or with a brain that likes to pretend it’s permanently ‘out for lunch’. But alas, it’s a luxury I may never have.

Buy why must everyone be aware? Well, they don’t necessarily… but for many, awareness can be a miracle. For fellow suffers, who find relief in knowing they’re not alone. For those who’s ignorance isn’t bliss. Who live in suffering without realising there’s an alternative. I was a miserable teenager. The kind that stereotypes are made from. The kind with major depression. If I had known, if someone had made me aware, maybe I could have received the kind of early-intervention that averts a lifetime of relapsing disability. If that isn’t reason enough to add mental health education to the curriculum, I don’t know what is

But the biggest impact of awareness, ironically, is among the blissfully ignorant. Awareness isn’t and should never be about about making people feel miserable, guilty, or (most importantly, and most ironically) ignorant. It’s about information, education, and clarification. About raising understanding of the true impact of mental health problems, so people are less likely to assume or criticise or judge.  Because that’s when the real enemy shows it’s teeth. Not mental illness itself, but stigma. The villain-in-chief.

So this week, next week, every week, don’t be afraid to keep raising awareness. Preferably not in the moaning and complaining way (I’ve already done enough of that for a lifetime). Nor in the preachy way. Furedi and O’Neill may be grumpy farts, but I doubt their views are unique. If like them, you “don’t want to know”, that’s fine. Just be aware that you’re not aware. And try to remember that when you’re next tempted to judge someone.