Guest Blogger, Sam Ward, Questions Awareness Campaigns, and Their Effectiveness…
In the interest of breaking the stigma, and taking the advice of Hemingway, I’m going to “write hard and clear about what hurts.” Mental illness hurts. It hurts those directly affected, it hurts their family, their friends, and it hurts us all as a society.
Lately we have seen the long overdue beginnings of recognition. National campaigns, such as Time to Change and The Guardian’s ‘Let’s talk mental health’, and more local campaigns, are starting to raise awareness and educate people of the severity and size of the situation.
Awareness is important. Without it, nothing can change. But like each viral craze on the internet, awareness can be everywhere one week and nowhere the next. How many of the people who poured a bucket of iced water on their head are still campaigning or raising money for Motor Neurone disease? How many of us are still talking about Ebola…much less helping?
Awareness is something easy to give. It takes little to no effort. Here lies the success and failure of awareness campaigns. They achieve great results because they ask so little of people but they will always fall short because they receive so little long term support. Awareness is passive participation.
Awareness alone doesn’t help the people who would do almost anything not to go home; those who curl up and lose their days to TV shows they don’t even like; the parents at their wit’s end because they don’t know know to help their mentally ill children; the parents that are at their wit’s end because they don’t know how to cope any longer, but hang on anyway like a suspension bridge losing one wire at a time; the people trapped between isolation and the immobilising terror of social anxiety; or those who live with a constant sorrow and vague dread.
Of course, in time, awareness becomes acceptance, and in time that leads to incremental change; but for anyone suffering now, that is too late. It’s not about stopping these campaigns, or criticising them, this is about making sure we kick off from the start they give us and really work to make change happen.
The best example I can give to support what I’m saying is to talk about loneliness. Loneliness is a consuming, bitter black treacle. It is also something familiar to many with mental health issues. We all sort of know that we are becoming more lonely and isolated even as we plug ourselves into the internet ‘connection’. Social Media might allow us to talk, but it also lets social interaction and – for many – anxiety, invade our personal space. If I were to launch an awareness campaign about loneliness and millions of people started talking about it, would it eradicate loneliness? I don’t think it would, because even though loneliness doesn’t need billions of pounds or huge changes to infrastructure to overcome, it still requires honest, long-term commitment from us all.
Talking about mental health, and loneliness, on social media or face to face does brilliantly to unite people, de-mystify it all, and present a truer picture of the state of things . We need to encourage it to become the norm. But we shouldn’t be forced to rely on each other for all of our support. If you have Cancer, talking to someone with Cancer can be comforting and the shared experience can give strength, but you wouldn’t be expected to administer each other’s chemotherapy or remove each other’s tumours.
I sought medical help for depression once. I wasn’t so much as offered an informal chat. I was given small prescriptions for anti-depressants and told to come back in regularly. The outcomes were always the same only the doctors had changed. Each time a new face to whom you had to explain (again) the intimate details of how you felt and how you lived. The drugs didn’t work. They didn’t work in the doses given so I took them in batches. I drank upwards of three litres a day of cheap cider or wine. I had no internet, no smart phone. I had a freezing bed-sit with no heating, a hair-dryer, and a few books. The drugs weren’t working. I went to tell this to a doctor, whichever it may be.
Once I had told this new doctor, a Hungarian man, about my worsening situation he started asking me some slightly probing but compassionate questions. I thought this was the beginning of something better, some actual treatment. I answered the questions as honestly as I dared and the doctor paused. He then went on to tell me the condensed tale of how his grandparents, along with his infant parents, had managed to escape from a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He told me of their resolve and their hope, but most of all he referred to their grit. Then he doubled my prescription strength, handed me the slip, and advised me that it was my choice whether or not to take the pills, but he advised not. It was the closest to a professional ‘man up’ you can get.
I walked past the pharmacy and I felt like shit. His family escaped the Nazis and there I was…and here I am ill. I never did put in that prescription. I changed alcohol for weed, which in the short term was better. I self-medicated and to this day have gone without the long term support I need.
What I want to say is, that whether you are taking part in the poorly named “It’s okay to not be okay” campaign at the University of Portsmouth, or posting on social media, or even just talking about mental health, don’t stop there. To quote mental health nurse turned novelist Nathan Filer, mental health care is “an utter, God-awful mess” in Britain. It is going to take more than awareness to fix it.
Written by Sam Ward
More of Sam’s writing can be found here!