My heart sinks at the thought of another mental health awareness campaign – people may be surprised at that, considering I’m the founder of a lived-experience-led, mental health and well-being social enterprise. Those that know me well may raise an eyebrow; having watched and heard me campaign over the years on raising awareness of mental ill-health and the reduction of stigma.
Various campaigns in the last few years have done an amazing job of raising awareness and reducing stigma. I say this from a very personal perspective, as someone who suffered silently with mental ill-health for many years.
However, there is a flaw in this campaigning or, at the very least, a short-sightedness.
The last few years, prior to COVID-19, saw a consistent rise in people trying to access mental health support services. This was interpreted as a mental health crisis; but was it? Might it actually have been an indication of how successful the awareness raising campaigns had been?
Was it, in fact, an indication that the stigma around mental health was finally being conquered, resulting in people having the courage to step forward for help?
Of huge concern are the numbers of young people requesting mental health support, which again has been seen as a crisis. Forever the optimist; I’d like to suggest that the rise in young people seeking support is a positive thing. Surely the earlier we recognise that we need help and support the better, as this should reduce the chances of needing crisis support later.
A recent visit to a local academy to deliver first aid for mental health training to S5 & S6 students was a real eye-opener and very refreshing.
These young people were way ahead of where I was, at their age. Their understanding of their mental health and how to protect and strengthen it, whilst showing a real understanding and empathy towards each other, was impressive. At that particular stage in my own life, I had no idea I had mental health to look after, let alone how to keep myself mentally well. Our young people are ahead of the game, in comparison to older generations.
This also indicates that the efforts of schools, colleges, Youth Agencies, and campaigns have had a positive impact. We have come a long way but we still have some way to go.
As a director of a social enterprise and a trainer delivering first aid for mental health, predominantly to community volunteers and community practitioners, I have witnessed a positive shift in attitudes and perceptions of mental ill-health over the last few years. This has included a real desire to understand and offer support to people dealing with the challenges mental ill-health can bring.
Central to this training is recognising the signs and symptoms of someone experiencing mental health distress and being able to step forward and start a supportive conversation. Ultimately, we aim to build the confidence of the trainee to support the person and empower them to engage with appropriate professional support services and other self-help support.
I have been involved in delivering mental health training for over 10 years now. One of the exercises I use in the training is asking three groups of delegates to list words used to describe someone suffering mental ill-health. There are three categories:
When I first introduced this activity, the negative/judgemental list was as long as Leith Walk, with the positive and neutral lists, lucky to have one or two words.
Over the last two years, I have observed a real turnaround in those lists, with the Negative list shrinking dramatically. One Male Cohort of Trainees refused to write any words on their list, saying: ‘We don’t use negative words to refer to or describe anyone experiencing mental ill-health’. The positive and neutral list are growing with each cohort of trainees. That is progress and a real indictment of the campaigns that have gone before.
These are positive steps and, if we take a minute to think about it, we may realise that a rise in demand for mental health services isn’t always a bad thing and might actually be an indication of real success.
There is still one major problem though.
We cannot keep raising awareness, through campaigns and training courses, which encourage people to recognise they might need support, when the services we direct them to do not have the capacity to meet the demand. In fact, many community organisations and groups are way beyond capacity already and are on their knees trying to support those in the local community.
We cannot continue to encourage those who are unwell to seek services that cannot help them.
It takes a huge amount of strength and courage for someone who is suffering to step forward. To be met by a closed door, 18 month waiting list, or even worse; to be told you are ‘not ill enough’ to receive support, can be devastating.
The effort and hope the person invests in engaging is huge. To be left feeling that, yet again, they have failed or they are not that important, can escalate the negative feelings the person is already experiencing. For some it’s just another case of being let down again.
Additionally; is it ok to be directing people towards services where our colleagues are struggling with demand? Many are burnt out and may be needing and seeking support themselves.
We are currently seeing regular, almost daily reports regarding the Mental Health crisis in the UK.
The Lancet study, ‘Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population’ highlights the tsunami that awaits as we come out of the COVID-19 crisis. The full impact, I believe, will not be seen for a few years. We must start preparing now.
Awareness raising campaigns have their place, and have previously done a fantastic job. Surely, on the back of these campaigns; the time has come to reduce the resources spent on raising awareness. We need to invest more resources into the services which can support those who need it; in particular, the community organisations and groups who know their communities well.
To do so, would be the responsible and ethical thing to do.
June Dickson is the founding director of EnvironMentalHealth CIC.
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