How to make every week mental health awareness week

Joanna Taylor 27 May 2016

For about one in four people in the UK, every week is Mental Health Awareness Week, or at least one in which they must hope for the time, space, and empathy to reach out about their mental health condition. Yes, a week of focused de-stigmatization is fantastic, but this sort of positive campaigning should be considered an on-going responsibility. It is thought that there are many, many more people suffering in silence, and that this statistic may soon increase to as many as one in three individuals.

On top of this, nine out of ten people suffering from mental health problems will experience stigma and discrimination. I am not suggesting that everyone should be writing blogs, reading up on various mental disorders in complex and long volumes, or watching endless documentaries – but it only takes a little effort, a little engagement on a daily or at least weekly basis, to start phasing out the stigma that has surrounded mental health for so long. It really is the little things that can tip somebody’s day either way if they are living with a mental health condition.

To this end, here are a few super simple things you may think about incorporating into your daily or weekly routine in order to contribute to the de-stigmatization of poor mental health. Firstly, communication is everything. If you know someone is struggling, then drop them a text every so often. If you are incredibly busy (and this is especially relevant to university exam terms!) there is no need to instigate a full or lengthy conversation – something as simple as, ‘Thinking of you today’, or ‘Hope you’re doing ok at the moment’ can make all the difference! However, if an opportunity presents itself for a longer conversation then seize it. Don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t be put off if you get little in return.

Secondly, reading and personal research can equip you with the necessarily tools and vocabulary to begin a conversation. Nobody is expecting you to be an expert, but knowing some of the main symptoms of a particular condition can really help you empathise with somebody’s situation, particularly if they are reluctant to go into detail themselves. Although it is impossible in any situation to say exactly the right thing or to be able to fully understand someone else’s circumstances, it is much easier to communicate if you know a bit of the ‘lingo’, or have an awareness of some of the things your friend or relative might be going through. The MIND website is very easy to navigate and contains lots of accessible information, often in bullet-point format.

Finally, I think it is important to keep our – and others’ – vocabulary in check. Words like ‘bipolar’ and ‘psycho’ might seem harmless, but often only serve to further stigmatize what are real and challenging mental conditions. Describing the weather as ‘bipolar’ because it can’t make up its mind shows a blatant disregard for the facts, which maintain that most people with bipolar disorder alternate between periods of depression and (hypo)mania over the duration of weeks and months, not every half an hour (like the weather in the UK). Bipolar is a deeply complex mental health condition, and shouldn’t be reduced to a commonplace adjective. Words like these should not be used as synonyms for anything other than the debilitating conditions they signify, and appropriating them for other uses further stigmatizes mental health, and the common misconceptions of the symptoms of such illnesses.

These are just some of the little things we can all be doing to make every week easier for those suffering from poor mental health. If we want the stigma to disappear for good, the work can’t be bracketed by a couple of arbitrary dates. Solidarity and support shouldn’t come once a year in a stream of supportive post-its and Facebook shares – it should be there all year round.