Saturday, 9 June 2018

Awareness Is Not Enough.

TW: suicide

I've been toying with writing a post like this for a long time, but it was only when the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit, Scott Hutchison, was sadly found dead that I felt... I dunno, angry? sad? frustrated? enough to do so. Sadly, since that day around a month ago, there have been further high profile deaths, with both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain tragically passing away this week. It is becoming clearer every day that awareness of mental health issues is not enough.

The reaction to celebrities dying from depression or other mental health issues is sadly becoming more predictable. In the immediate aftermath, there is an outcry; people widely publicise the numbers of helplines that offer a lifeline to those who are struggling. There are declarations from people, myself included, that we are only a message away and that there is no need to suffer in silence. And then, despite all the good intentions, within a week it is forgotten and we are back to discussing whatever divisive pop culture opinions are currently relevant.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone, which can sometimes be hard to admit to myself. I know full well that a few offhand comments about ‘always being there’ are not enough. But what more can I really do? All I can offer is an ear to listen with and a shoulder to cry on, but as someone who often feels the same way as anyone who turns to me for support, I have no answers. I have nothing but trite words, and I am unable to truly help. What happens when someone needs more than I can offer? 

Please don’t get me wrong – of course, I believe that you should be regularly checking in with those around you and offering them support. But it worries me that this is the only help anyone seems to discuss in the aftermath of a public battle with mental illness. It concerns me that we expect people to take complete responsibility for each other’s mental health when we are not trained or fully-knowledgeable on how to do so. 

Mental health doesn’t discriminate: it impacts regardless of gender, sexuality, age, wealth, status. We have to be mindful of everyone around us. Awareness has allowed us to identify the risky signs, to pick up on changes and to help people when they need it most. But sometimes there are no warning signs of how deeply overwhelmed a person has become. Sometimes, you can ask them how they are a thousand times and they will lie and smile and say everything is fine - I know this, I have been this person. 

It’s a catch-22. Mental illness can make it so hard to ask for help, and it can also make it hard to accept it. I completely agree that as a loved one you should show you care, but having been on both sides of this coin I know how completely lost you can feel when you try to help. No one involved in this process has an instruction manual. 

Either way, guilt is heaped on us: guilt on those of us who are struggling, who are constantly told they need to speak to someone but feel so consumed by their illness that they aren’t able to; guilt on those of us who don’t know how to make it better; and guilt on those who don’t catch the signs, those who failed to spot when there was something wrong, and who feel accountable for the results. 

Reducing the stigma and increasing the awareness of mental illness by speaking out is absolutely crucial. Allowing people to openly discuss how they are feeling and making people aware of symptoms is so important, and should never be discredited. Huge campaigns like Mental Health Awareness Day/Week/Month are excellent conversation-starters. But awareness doesn’t fix the issue – awareness is not enough.

I’m tired of seeing politicians support charity campaigns and say they are backing the reduction of stigma and encouraging people to speak out, while in the same breath they cut budgets and reduce resources. I’m tired of being told “help is out there!” when, let’s be honest, it isn’t. Sure, I’m grateful that increased awareness might prevent someone from thinking I’m weak as opposed to ill, but if it doesn’t help alleviate the illness is it really as beneficial as we like to pretend? 

As always, the issue seems to come down to resources. I am yet to hear of other life-threatening illnesses where you can be expected to wait 6-18 months for help. I can’t think of any other life-threatening illnesses that routinely have sufferers brushed off and refused treatment until they are hours away from death. I was told that help was coming, even though there was a six-month wait for it, and yet 18-months later when I eventually moved out of the area I’d still heard nothing. It’s completely unacceptable that the only resources that seem to be widely available to people are through charities. It’s ridiculous that we are at a stage where suicide is literally the leading cause of death of men under 50, at its highest rate amongst women in a decade, and the only advice we are given is “talk”. 

Scott Hutchison talked. Regularly. 

I’m sorry if this is becoming a ramble, but I am angry. I am angry that I, alongside thousands of other people, am being put in the same position as Scott. I am angry that my family and friends are expected to do the job of trained professionals because this government thinks a few tired old platitudes are the same as funding mental health care. This is a health crisis, and it is being swept under the rug. 

I know the wonderful people who work for the NHS would probably love to do more, but they are stretched to breaking point. I also know that the people who care for me will be more than happy to talk to me, as would I for them. We are all in this together, and yes, that means we all need to look out for each other, but we also need to work together for long-term change. 

We need people to push for mental health funding. We need votes for political parties that are going to do more than just say they support reducing stigma. We need care now - not six, twelve, 18 months in the future. We need a change in healthcare services, a change in laws to protect and support us, a change in the way society views mental health. And we really need people to help support our efforts for change. 

Being aware of mental health issues and having an understanding of how the
y make people feel is a good thing, and I am glad that people are opening their minds to it. But we need more. We need you to be a voice for us when we are too disillusioned, too exhausted, too overwhelmed to speak ourselves.

Mental illness affects one in four people, and just because you haven’t experienced it yet doesn’t mean you won’t. Now is the time to make sure that if you do go through this in the future, there are meaningful, effective and widely available resources to help you. Being aware is great, but it is not enough.

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