Content warning – the following post includes a discussion of suicide and self-harm.
As the US and Canada have been marking Mental Health Awareness month, and the UK begins to mark Mental Health Awareness week, there have been many tweets and posts and articles of various kinds. This post is about a specific kind of Mental Health Awareness post. You know the ones. The posts that tell us mental health awareness is about taking care of ourselves. To be kind to ourselves. To make some time for us. Take a bath. Meditate. Smell the roses.
Self-care is fine. Self-care is good. But this is not what Mental Health Awareness should be about. Mental illnesses are a serious reality for many people, the level of ignorance surrounding these topics is massive, and the avoidance of certain issues is engrained because of the stigma that surrounds them.
That stigma regarding mental illness, and mental health, harms people. It harms people by making them feel that the pain they go through is shameful. It harms people because they feel they cannot ask for the help and support that they need. It harms people because they left with the feeling that what they are going through is a judgement on who they are as a person, rather than an issue that can be dealt with through treatment and support.
This stigma needs to end, and it will not end by making lists of our top-ten most relaxing bubble-bath ideas.
This is not an article about self-care, it is not a post designed to make you feel better, about yourself, or anything else. This is a post about the hard conversations that need to be had around mental health.
We need to talk about suicide.
A recent death by suicide that attracted attention was the death of an ER doctor who had been treating coronavirus cases. That death was one of many. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Worldwide, around 800,000 people lose their lives to suicide every year. There are also many people who live day-to-day with suicidal ideation, not necessarily making a plan to end their lives, but rather living with thoughts that they might.
Talking about suicide can be hard. What is an appropriate way to discuss suicide? When and how do you raise this issue with someone you are concerned about? How do we walk a line between avoiding the topic entirely, and constantly, intrusively, monitoring people we are concerned about? There are guides out there for how to do this, and more of us should familiarise ourselves with them.
We need to talk about self-harm.
Self-harm is a common symptom of distress. It is also a symptom that is heavily stigmatised. People who self-harm are too often labelled “attention seekers,” rather than people suffering distress. Survivors with visible scars commonly have to deal with other people’s reactions to and discomfort with those scars. One mental health advocate has said that this is like her own body being considered a trigger.
Here, too, there are guides for how to talk about self-harm. Most importantly, sufferers have said that being spoken to and about with respect and empathy is key.
Suicide and self-harm are just two topics from a long list of things that need more attention in discussions of mental health awareness. There are other important subjects that should be tackled this month, like how mental health services are failing people of colour.
Mental Health Awareness Month is not a time for putting soothing quotes about self-care over a photo of the beach at sunset. It’s a time for hard conversations about serious issues.
For Mental Health Awareness month, and Mental Health Awareness week, don’t take a relaxing bath, or take up flower arranging, or go for a calming walk. Instead, commit to reading articles and listening to podcasts by disability and mental health advocates that tackle difficult subjects.
Mental health awareness isn’t easy, but it can save lives. So make yourself aware.