The problem with Mental Health Awareness Week

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

Tuesday October the 10th is recognised worldwide as “World Mental Health Day” and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week.

I have a problem with Mental Health Awareness Week: It’s still not clear to me what it is we’re trying to do, what kind of awareness are we trying to raise?

Are the people who need to be more aware actually listening?

I spend a lot of time close to – and trying to understand – human distress, emotional pain, trauma and suffering. And I do often joke that “We’re all mad, when you look hard enough”.

But behind that black humour is a truth that we need to be aware of.

Research from a recent Dunedin-based study suggests over 80 per cent of us will experience some kind of “mental illness” in our lifetime. That’s much higher than the figure of 50 per cent that is often quoted.

Rates of depression are soaring in so called economically developed countries, with rates of anxiety close behind. In New Zealand, our suicide rate is a national shame and just under one third of teenagers are deliberately harming themselves as a way to cope with their emotions.

We’re isolated, stressed and in pain at higher levels than ever before.

With all the debate and disagreement about the crisis in our mental health services over the last couple of years, on this one point myself and the Minister of Health agree: Demand is increasing.

Words matter, and I’ve never liked the idea of human suffering being labelled as illness and diagnosed. Some people find it useful; it can validate and help understanding to know you’re not alone. But others find it stigmatising and labelling.

The whole concept of “mental illness” versus “mental health” is a way to try and describe and categorise what happens when human suffering causes consequences that make our lives unmanageable.

But with increased awareness of mental health problems comes misunderstanding. You can’t be “a bit depressed” as much as liking a tidy house does not mean you’re “OCD”. And mass murderers may very well be very, very disturbed – but they don’t shoot people because they are mentally ill.

When we draw a line and define some as sick and others as not sick we invite stigma. We need new words that go beyond mental health/ illness. We need to accept that all human torment and suffering exists on a very fuzzy and wobbly continuum where there are no clear lines between illness and wellness.

There is no us and them.

We’re all mad because the modern world is killing us: and we’re all in it together.
We’ve all played our part in creating a culture that values money over health, individual success over collective wellbeing, the economy more than people and our convenience more than the planet.

That’s what we need to be more aware of. And only together can we fix it.

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