Tokenism In Mental Health Awareness

Written for QLD Mental Health Week 2020

Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health Day and I feel a little conflicted about highlighting it. There are a lot of positives to having dedicated days or weeks to draw our attention to mental health. But I also believe we need to approach these awareness days with a little caution. It’s too easy to post or repost something related to the topic, tick the box of doing good and move on with our days.

Ironically these tokenistic efforts are becoming more common as awareness around mental ill health grows, especially when we don’t have to move beyond the comfort of our keyboards to feel as though we are achieving change. Of course it is good that there is more awareness, tolerance and marginally less stigma surrounding mental ill health than there was fifty or even twenty years ago. But we have to make sure we don’t replace the old insensitivities with their more modern counterparts.

I have written about my dislike of RUOK day before RUOK Day: Full Disclosure and this year I heard another perspective that reenforced my reasons for disliking this day. When I am well, my psychiatrist appointments usually consist of me requesting scripts for any medications I am running low on, a brief check in with how I’m going and then we chat about the state of the world, my advocacy work, his psychiatry work. This year one of my appointments happened to fall around RUOK day and we talked about the pros and cons of this day. I expressed my opinion and my psychiatrist referenced one of his patients coming in on RUOK day in distress because they were bombarded by people they knew asking them if they were ok. People they didn’t hear from for the rest of the year. People who were probably well intentioned, but using them as the token mentally ill person in their lives, to tick the box of having asked: RUOK?

Awareness around mental ill health should not be confined to one day or one week of the year. Episodes of mental illness flare unpredictably and feel as though they will never end. This feeling is fed by the fact that no one can tell you when it will end. There are good days and worse days. There are days when the risk of it turning into a terminal illness skyrockets. Someone may have a spectacularly good day on RUOK day, a calm and uneventful mental health week, but be suicidal sometime in April or on Christmas day, when it is all too easy to be under the impression that we showed our support for those among us living with mental illness back in mental health week, and Christmas day is busy and by April we are into Caesarean awareness month and IBS awareness month.

 So what can we do to be meaningfully aware of the impact mental ill health has on those of us who live with it, and what can we do to support them for more than a day or a week of the year?

Everyone who lives with mental illness is different and everyone’s experience is different even if they live with the same diagnosis. So, I don’t speak for everyone.

For me – I don’t need to be asked how I am. I have enough insight into my Bipolar 1 Disorder to know when I need to seek help. I am fortunate to have good support systems in place, so I don’t tend to feel lonely or isolated.

For me it is all about the language people use. Hearing or seeing stigmatising language either in the media, on social media, or spoken, punches me in the gut. When I am confronted with words like nuts, crazy, lunatic, psycho, mental institution, – the list is long – it belittles me. It strips away the facts of my life, my healthy functional relationships, my personality, my university degrees, my profession, my interests, my sense of humour and it reduces me to a hellish caricature of who the misinformed masses believe someone mentally ill is.

So, think about how you write and speak around me. If you hear or see someone else perpetuating stigmatising language around mental illness, call it out. Do so politely, but raise awareness of it. I do it as often as I can, but I also get tired of being told to shut up, get over it, or that I am overreacting.

Perhaps the most helpful thing you can do for someone in your life who lives with mental ill health is not to automatically ask them how they are, but to ask them what you can do to make them feel valued and supported all year round. They may answer: ‘Ask me how I am’ in which case you are doing it meaningfully and mindfully, not because it is a certain day of the year.

All that said, Happy World Mental Health Day everyone. In honour of it also being Queensland Mental Health Week from 10th-18th Oct I am aiming to drop a few additional posts in Thought Food this week.

Look after yourselves and each other!

You may also like to check out:

RUOK Day: Full Disclosure

Mind Your Language Katy Perry

Don’t Call Conspiracy Theorists Crazy