Trigger warning: mental illness, suicide.
In recent decades, conversations around mental health have been transformed. The mad woman has left the attic; her face is now splashed across the front pages of tabloids, her story dramatised for soap operas and sitcoms. Madness has entered mainstream media. So the conversation has cracked open, but is discussion really helping those who need it?
Meghan Markle’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey was a far cry from the media cover-ups and “stiff upper lip” approach of earlier generations of royals. With improving public understanding of mental illnesses, prejudice and taboo have been somewhat reduced. High profile celebrities and public figures speaking about their lived experiences and fundraising for mental health charities have doubtless contributed to this normalisation, as they stress the validity of mental illness and urge us not to suffer in silence. Using their global platforms to “break the silence” is certainly effective in starting those all-important conversations; unfortunately, smear campaigns share centre stage with celebrities’ private lives, and even a frank confession of suicidality can be wilfully disbelieved by some. Despite Markle facing backlash and harassment following the interview, her candour and vulnerability are evidence of progress in the making.
Mental health awareness campaigns have proven themselves successful in changing public perceptions, normalising discussion and allaying some of the associated stigma and taboo. Despite their benefits, however, such campaigns can also leave those with the more severe forms of mental illness feeling even more alone, misunderstood and ashamed of how unwell they are. Brands promote maintenance of mental wellbeing through “self care” – because hospital gowns and mood stabilisers just don’t fit the home spa aesthetic…
Consider the milieu of online activism we consume nowadays. Reminders to “check in on your friends,” are banded about on social media as lackluster and less than meaningful virtue signalling, while so-called influencers declare that “mental health matters,” speaking into their ring lights and expensive cameras while they contort themselves around an acai bowl. A dating app tweets a hopeful “you’re not alone” message, while another big brand shares a tear-jerker of a post boasting about 0.01% of profits being donated to a charity you’ve never heard of. Surely such impersonal, lazy efforts to jump on the wellbeing bandwagon are missing the point? The commodification of wellbeing practices may leave the hardest hit feeling more exasperated than understood. This year, Dove launched a new range of products for children with the tagline, “It’s never too early to teach kids the power of self care”, using their global platform to advocate against every -ism under the sun while selling us their “self-care squad” of new body lotions, and Rimmel declared February their #RimmelSelfCareMonth to promote…makeup? “Self care” has become a beauty industry buzzword, and regardless of the success of educational initiatives and fundraisers, the branded “wokeness” reeks of inauthenticity and unsettling ulterior motives. Business is business, profit is profit: is mental illness destigmatised, or are we becoming desensitised thanks to the endless stream of adverts? Are we helping the people who really need it?
Basic “self care” activities such as showering, eating regular meals and generally “looking after yourself” are undoubtedly important for mental wellbeing, and the absence of these behaviours can be a warning sign that someone’s mental health is declining. However, psychiatric pathology can develop even when somebody is “doing everything right”. We need to do more than promote wellbeing in the well. We need to promote recovery, healthy coping mechanisms and the implementation of safety plans for the unwell, too.
David Beckham tells us “it’s OK to not be OK” over a Zoom call with the Duke of Cambridge, who avows “we all have mental health,” from Kensington Palace. If you’re rolling your eyes at that, maybe this will resonate: it really doesn’t feel OK. We don’t have to squeeze positivity into every illness experience or force the “it’s OK” narrative onto feelings of utter hopelessness – it’s not OK, it’s just not unusual or shameful or weak. When public figures speak candidly about their experiences, their aim is to spread the message that suffering with mental illness need not be exacerbated by shame, is not an indication of your strength of character, nor a sign of weakness or failure. Furthermore, stories of recovery can offer some semblance of hope – the future might ease up on you and become a little bit less awful. But could we go beyond raising awareness with catchy slogans and celebrity cameos?
Psychiatrists, mental health services and charity hotlines all exist for a reason – sometimes when you’re sick you can get better on your own, sometimes you need professional help or medical intervention. It can be difficult to know how to access the appropriate support, what that support constitutes, and when you might receive it. It’s all very well telling people to reach out, but not knowing what will happen next can be so daunting it prevents people from taking that vital step.
Sometimes people need medication, hours of talking therapy, or a hospital stay, instead of “Headspace homeopathy” and “Insta inspo”. It can be helpful to hear that you’re not alone, but in the throes of mental illness, awareness and empty cliches do little to erase those feelings. How did all those people who have been through it cope? How did they emerge hopeful and determined to live their best lives? If you’re considering reaching out for help for your own or someone else’s mental health, you likely have a lot of unanswered questions. Psychiatry is shrouded in mystery, perhaps due to its unsavoury past. Awareness needs to do more than say “people are sad, get over it.” We need mental health services to be more transparent for the benefit of their patients.
Mental health is no longer taboo, but it can still require immense willpower and courage to start a conversation about your own difficulties. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you can recover and the sooner you can feel like yourself again. But what happens next? If the purpose of mental health campaigns is to actually benefit our mental health, raising awareness can only ever be a first step. Mental health services are struggling. Underfunded and understaffed, they suffer bed shortages in their inpatient units and for milder afflictions, often proffer year-long waiting lists for outpatient psychotherapy. As it becomes more acceptable for people to engage with these services, the system flounders even more, meaning the pressure of keeping up with patients’ needs can feel like a sisyphean task. While talking and story-sharing have their merits, trending tweets aren’t going to cure people of eating disorders or psychosis. We need to take real action to uplift an overwhelmed system and improve provisions for chronically underfunded services. Perhaps we will repurpose those catchy slogans and celebrity endorsement to lobby for increased funding of services and better training for staff across all sectors, and start proving there is meaning behind the words.
About the writer:
Sophia draws on her own lived experiences of mental illness to advocate for the continued improvement of mental health care. Her particular interests are in medical psychotherapy and the communication of subjective experiences through creative methods. Her preferred coping mechanisms are journaling, Gilmore Girls, and reading the day away. Her top tip for dealing with mental illness: if you’re considering asking for help, it’s time to ask – don’t wait because you think it’s not bad enough, you deserve support however mild or severe your symptoms are.