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12th October 2017

World Mental Health Day – Rising Awareness and Sinking Spirits


October 10th was World Mental Health Day. The aim was to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and build support for mental health. Raising awareness about mental health issues has got to be a good thing, right? I’ve written about campaigns on this website and you may well have been involved in awareness-raising about certain mental health issues in your own organisation.

Yet the President of the Royal Society of Medicine, psychiatrist Simon Wessely recently said "Every time we have a mental health awareness week my spirits sink. We don’t need people to be more aware. We can’t deal with the ones who already are aware.”

What could be his concerns?

  • Raising awareness means raising expectations, raising demand that, in a period of restrictions on funding, means more people seeking help with less resources available. If people have struggled to seek help and have then be denied it, this could be very damaging
  • Another concern is that awareness without education can be counter-productive and make people think that perfectly normal reactions such as grief or emotional distress are mental health problems that need treating. That is not to dismiss mental distress but to be aware of the causes, and the course or pattern of it. We don’t want to make illnesses out of normal human reactions to distressing events
  • The focus of mental health awareness is often on more common mental health problems. That is not to say that depression, anxiety and stress disorders aren’t disabling conditions but these are the ones that are the subject of campaigns and testimonies of people in the public eye. The concern is that severe and enduring mental health problems such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia do not get the same publicity. So people with these conditions may not think awareness applies to them. Typically they will continue to suffer without seeking help

End of awareness?

So do we get rid of mental health awareness campaigns? No, just because they might raise demand for services doesn’t mean they should be hidden away. Mental health problems that aren’t assessed or treated may worsen, causing greater pressure on the person and their family, and eventually maybe even greater pressure on services. Awareness shouldn’t be about getting people to think they have a mental health problem when they haven’t, it’s about offering explanations as to why people might feel the way do, and talking openly about it can be a first step to seeking appropriate help. It’s not just about self-awareness; for those of us working in health and social care , a greater understanding of mental health can make us more effective workers.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Topics: Mental Health

David Beckingham

Mental Health Specialist

David Beckingham is a self-employed independent trainer, and is also an honorary lecturer with the University of Cumbria. His professional background is as a social worker and he has worked in care homes for older people in Cumbria. David’s main area of expertise is in mental health. Prior to becoming self-employed he was a Staff Development and Training Officer with Cumbria County Council, both commissioning and delivering training to mental health workers and others in statutory and independent sector organisations. Read more

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