Mental Health Awareness – What’s all the fuss about?

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What does Mental Health Awareness really mean and why do we keep having it shoved down our throats? After all, aren’t we all aware now? Aware of the multitude of different mental illnesses that can strike? Aware of the need to be ‘non-judgemental’, ‘break down the stigma’? Well, I used to think so.

When my friend fell ill with anxiety and depression – and fell is definitely the word – all those around merely threw the earth on top. The doctor told her to pull herself together: ‘you have to snap out of it and go back to school’. So she did, she followed his capital, professional advice and snapped her fingers and it all went away. Unfortunately, this is not true. Like telling an asthmatic to man up and breathe, it had little affect except to condescend. ‘Just remember there is nothing to be down about’ said the ever insightful counsellor, like telling an amputee victim to ‘just remember, reptiles can re-grow lost limbs’ . It was misguided, condescending, irrelevant and offensive. The school told her that if she didn’t ‘pull her act together and improver her punctuality’ she would be expelled. Meanwhile there were medals, assemblies and local-newspapers for the recovering leukaemia sufferer who made it in to school after months off. Of course, I do not undermine his condition, I am merely highlighting the one organ which is stigmatised and almost has the blame flipped onto the sufferer should it go wrong: the brain.

Channel 4 tackled the problem of Mental Health Awareness straight on as part of their 4 Goes Mad season. Jon Richardson’s A Little Bit OCD, was a non-programme shown on Tuesday, 24 July 2012 in which he investigated whether or not he is ‘simply a demanding perfectionist’ or does indeed suffer with obsessive compulsive disorder. He concluded he did not have OCD and nor did he indeed suffer, solely with a heightened longing for order, straight-lines, cleanliness and minor irrational compulsions, or idiosyncrasies that we all have to different degrees. A patronising, trivialising attempt to tick OCD off of the ‘Channel 4 has tackled it list’. Upon awaking in the morning I often ponder on whether I have a splitting migraine or indeed no pain at all. If you felt the pain, you’d know.

Ruby Wax’s much more insightful and humbling attempt at unwrapping the stigma that surrounds mental health problems in her programme Mad Confessions was shown previously on Monday, 23 July 2012. This rather misguidedly included a man standing up in front of his whole work force and giving a tearful admission of his battle with mental health, rather like someone who stands up to declare to all their recurrent gout, kidney problems or even marital problems. Although slightly misfired, the issue in sights was worthy: why are mental health problems something that people are ashamed to admit, something ‘hush hush!’, something of which the admission of is noble or brave? Especially when we’re all so aware…

Mental health stigma has come a long way from straitjackets and incomprehensible, shaking, dribbling shadows being carted off to be fed mush off a spoon by smiling, red cheeked nurses. However, stigma does still exist. Aware as we are, awareness has to come with understanding. I am aware that E=mc2, do I understand it? Something about energy right? Now the stigma is that of mental illness being indicative of weakness, being out of control of your own thoughts, not being able to cope with stress. Deserves no sympathy? Mental illness is not something to be snapped out of, it is an illness and needs to be treated with the respect and non-patronising sympathy that any illness merits.

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