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.


18 thoughts on “Mental Health Awareness Week: Why is awareness so important?”

  1. Exactly. Awareness is not the same thing as guilt mongering.

    I don’t want or expect people to judge me based on my disabilities, but be the same token, stop thinking it’s okay to judge me because you can’t see them. If I tell people when out in public that I do have issues, it’s just me explaining out of courtesy why I can’t continue standing or walking, or whatever. It is not an open invitation for others to start interrogating me about the details of my challenges. Nor does it give them some kind of divine right to start spouting off their opinions about what kind of medical I’m getting. Or worse, start “helping” me by sharing their “secret” cure-alls. Just be aware that there is a reason I am asking for a short-cut in this line-up (or whatever).

    Sorry, went off on a bit of a tangent there! But hello, I’m a now following your blog! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, always nice to have a new follower 🙂 Don’t apologise for going on a tangent, I encourage it! Your experience sounds very farmilar, it’s hard being constantly interrogated – especially when you know there’s a big risk of judgement. We probably wouldn’t need more awareness if everyone just accepted everyone without the need to judge. But, for now, a bit of honest explanation helps.

      1. And thank you. Your article is very well written.

        I hope, perhaps naively so, that the day will come when our species would stop with all the judging. It seems to me that the people who most need to hear this message, are the least likely to actually to take it in. But we can dream, right?! 🙂

      2. I think we really need to delve into the evolutionary psychology of judgement. And then change our entire society so it doesn’t encourage it’s development. In other words, yes, it probably will take a while. But dreaming is good 😉 I completely agree about the problems of disseminating the message to the people who need it most, I expect all of my blogs just bounce around the echo chamber. I have tried calling out Furedi and O’Neill directly, but I doubt they will respond.

      3. Agreed. Unfortunately, much of the close mindedness is right found within the medical field. Over the years I’ve had amazing doctors, not because they were so much better than their peers, but because they cared. I’ve also had some really crappy, though very highly skilled, quacks I wouldn’t see again if you paid me for the priviledge.

        If you have the strength, I encourage you to ignore negative nellies like me, and keep trying to reach Furedi, O’Neill and anyone else you can that has the power to actually help.

  2. Is ‘awareness’ the same as ‘understanding’? I found your piece to be brimming with signposts; well constructed illustration, and humanity. Generally, I prefer tea – in cups.

    1. No, it probably isn’t. I wanted to include a discussion about problems with the word ‘awareness’, but it made the blog too long and confusing. So, for now, I shall have left it unchallenged that ‘awareness raising’ incorporates a number of aspects, including perhaps understanding (although I wonder whether anyone can truly understand mental health problems). Thanks for your kind words 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Seeking My Lost Voice and commented:
    I came across this blog posr earlier today. It struck a chord in me. Perhaps I’m too sensitive, or cynical, or both. It’s been my personal experience that those who really and truly need to “get it,” are the ones least likely to ever open their minds.

    I struggle with depression. I don’t know – or care – what came first, my physical or mental health issues. What I do know, is that despite living in the Information Age, people are often willfully ignorant. Look, I don’t want or expect people to know the minutiae of the challenges I face each and every moment of every day. What I do want – and *wish* I could expect – is for others to stop expecting that it’s okay to dump their beliefs and expectations on me.

    If I do share with you that I’m having issues when outside my home, it’s generally just a courtesy on my part. It means I’m sharing in the hope of less judgement than I normally face. I don’t want people to think I’m intoxicated when my balance goes or my words start to slur, so if I’m out with folks I don’t know that well and I notice something is about to go wonky, I state then and there that I have MS. It is not – let me be very clear – an invitation or cue, for anyone to proceed peppering me with questions, sharing the so-called medical wisdom, or to pass judgement. It is *not* a case of my pulling the sympathy card. I just want the people around me to know that I’m not plastered or high.

    If my depression gets the better of me while out in public and you don’t live the expression on my face – or in my case, lack thereof – it does not give you, family, friend or stranger, the right to go off on me. Period. You don’t like the look in my face? Here’s a tip, don’t look!

    1. Well said my friend! 🙂 Thanks so much for popping by and engaging, you made my day! And I love your comment, ‘despite living in the information age, people are often willfully ignorant’. You’re right, it is often a choice. I think that’s saddest of all.

  4. I think it’s important to be educated about mental health. If I had known more about it growing up, I could have gotten help sooner, maybe stopped myself from forming some of the habits that drag me down. I don’t like the term “awareness” either. People are aware, some try to help and the rest ignore. There should be more education. Mental illness will likely affect either you or someone you know. You don’t have to be an advocate, but being educated can only help.
    Great post! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your kind words SomberScribbler! you’ve made me wonder… Maybe I was wrong to leave out my (originally intended) critique of the word awareness? I was worried it’d be too negative, and maybe a bit confusing. Oh well, can’t win ’em all. I think it would be wonderful if mental health problems were added to the school curriculum, but I also worry it’d be done in a very tokenistic way, and that most pupils wouldn’t pay much attention. Better for mental health problems to just become accepted as part of the fabric of normal life. Thanks so much for your comment 🙂

  5. “Unfortunately, it’s also a luxury. And not one available to anyone with a chronic illness. ”
    –Oh so true. I’m just starting to get some real help at the age of 40. If I only understood better before, maybe I wouldn’t be at the state I’m currently at.

    1. I’m sorry it has taken so long for your to find real help, but I’m also glad it is finally in it’s way. Hope this is the beginning of some much happier times 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

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