My concerns about Mental Health Awareness Week

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

You’d think Mental Health Awareness Week would be one of my favourite weeks of the year.

But you’d be wrong. Fact is, I feel deeply conflicted about it, and no more so than this year.

In principal, it’s a good idea: that we take some time to raise awareness about mental health, to talk more openly about what helps and the impact of mental health problems.

It’s also true that lots of good awareness work, year on year, has brought us to the point where we are talking more openly than ever before about depression, anxiety and confronting stigma head on.

This year the Mental Health Foundations theme is “Let Nature In”.

At face value, there’s nothing wrong with suggesting people spend more time in nature, especially if it makes you feel more positive emotions, or helps you cope with distress better.

But is it what we really need to be spending so much time and money on at the moment? And is there even a downside to this approach?

There is a fundamental, and dangerous confusion that takes place when we talk about “mental wellbeing” interchangeably with “mental illness” or even “mental distress,” which this week’s theme does.

Because while it might help engage the wider public with the idea of managing your mental wellbeing, it can also leave others who are struggling under the weight of deep depression, suicidal thinking, overwhelming anxiety or crippling emotional pain invalidated through the apparent simplicity of “improving your wellbeing”.

It can also leave some assuming that people who are depressed just need to get off their ass and do something to help themselves – go outside, go for a walk, get some exercise.

So what is more important to be aware of this year?

How about the fact that the number of deaths by suicide in New Zealand is still climbing year on year, and while the youth suicide rate is still alarmingly high, the highest rate (by age and gender) is for men aged 50 – 54, followed by men aged 45- 49.

And that we are in the grip of what is seemingly an epidemic of anxiety and depression, at the same time as we continue to underfund the most effective treatment for both: psychotherapy and counselling.

That we continue to understand more and more about the impact of childhood physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as the impact of witnessing violence in the home while growing up. Yet at the same time New Zealand has one of the worst records of child abuse, and domestic violence, in the developed world.

That while it can seem unhelpfully abstract to talk about the effects of “capitalism” and “inequality” on mental health, increasingly as childhood anxiety increases, studies are telling us kids want to spend more time with their parents, but the economic reality is both parents need to work longer and longer hours just to keep a roof over their family’s head.

And still 27 per cent of children in New Zealand are currently living in income poverty.

So forgive me if “Letting Nature In” seems unhelpfully feel good in comparison. And while I absolutely encourage you to go outside, breathe the fresh air and feel good while doing it, perhaps we should also be “Letting some Reality In”.

Because just like any good therapy, awareness only takes you so far. At some point you have to take action. And if we need to be aware of one thing, it is that sadly we remain in denial about the reasons why so many are struggling with their mental health in Aotearoa.

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