In the last two years, society and culture have made progress in the fight against the world’s mental health epidemic. A previously relatively unrecognised type of illness, which affects 1 in 4 people in the UK, has had its social stigma shaken by people with a desire for change. Talking about and educating people on mental health are positive steps towards the solution. However, if you are serious about contributing to the solution, sharing a Facebook post isn’t enough.
Back in October of this year, It’s OK not to be OK campaign was launched to tackle workplace mental health problems. In Manchester, this materialised in the form of Mental Health Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day. The outcome was a much heightened sense of awareness of mental illness.
As someone who had never heard of mental health, until I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety some two years ago, breaking the stigma around the subject is so important. A greater awareness of causes and symptoms can help you catch your own or someone else’s illness early, reducing months of painful recovery.
And so it was satisfying, to begin with, when the selfies appeared on my Facebook feed in October, accompanied by serious stats on the pervasiveness of the issue, as well as offers of support and understanding. All those posts had the potential to prompt someone into seeking help or information for an issue of theirs.
Unfortunately, my optimism quickly dampened, as I wondered how many of those people were actually doing something proactive beyond that post? Were they going to identify a friend’s illness or make life less daunting for someone suffering?
And yet, how can I expect them to be more proactive? Arguably, an awareness of an issue doesn’t mean a complete understanding.
How could you, unless you’ve experienced it?
However, too many people are still ignorant of the signs of mental illness and how to help those suffering. I’m not suggesting everyone must become a psychologist. But you owe it to your friends, families, and colleagues to be more informed, for their sake.
Now for a quick science lesson. Our brain is controlled by chemicals and hormones which control your responses and emotions, for example, your fight-or-flight mode. Since we have evolved, our rational brain runs most of our life now, however, we still retain those primal instincts in threatening situations. Mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, are caused by an upset in your brain’s chemical balance. Our irrational, fight-or-flight, brain becomes more dominant, which can range from uncomfortable to totally disrupting your life.
And so to be proactive in helping, it is perhaps best to just be understanding. People cannot ask sufferers of mental illness to engage ‘normally’ with life — their brain is literally telling them not to. Day-to-day activities can become heated, harsh and draining arguments within their own head. Instead, maybe take them out for lunch or a coffee? Remember that alcohol is a depressant, so check on your friends who are drinking too much too often, something which is difficult to confront at university. In short, be there for your friends, make sure they aren’t withdrawing from life, staying in bed all day or not eating enough.
By all means contribute your voice to the social media campaigns to raise awareness around mental health, but be aware this is not the end of your responsibility.