If you’ve paid attention to your social media feeds through May, you’d have noticed the plethora of content around Mental Health Awareness. It’s no coincidence, because May happened to be Mental Health Month. Every year, when the month comes around online platforms are abuzz with conversations about Mental Health with hashtags trending, influencers putting out messages, survey releases, brands using it in their promotion and a lot of events all over the world. Unfortunately, when the month comes to an end, so does the buzz around Mental Health.
We know that those struggling with their Mental Health have to face that every single day, irrespective of whether it is trending on social media or not, so why do we limit our conversations to just certain days, weeks or a month based of off a trending theme? One thing we need to step up to doing more of is talking about Mental Health as that is the only way we can highlight the challenges the system faces, the concerns with support serves, the realities as opposed to prevailing myths and how we can all make a difference to help anyone struggling. This piece will throw some more light on how we can be better allies, in our own capacity.
Before we get into the conversation around Mental Health with the aim to change the narrative and make a difference, its important to look at a common argument being given by some Mental Health professions on who should be allowed to speak on Mental Health and those who should not be allowed to speak up on this issue. This is a topic which is very sensitive, highly misunderstood and sadly even today, extremely stigmatised and thus arises the need to have more conversations, awareness initiatives and knowledge building. Now coming to who can speak on the matter and who cannot. There is a section of Mental Health professionals who feel that psychiatrists, coaches, influencers, individuals with lived experiences to name a few are groups who need to steer away from the dialogue. However, what we really need right now is not exclusion but responsible discourse with boundaries, where each individual who talks about the subject is within their limits of their role. Look at it this way, when it comes to Cricket, players understand the rules of the game, but they are going to overstep themselves if they begin to question decisions made by the umpires (the authorities on the rules), but this doesn’t mean the player doesn’t necessarily not know about the rules. Similarly, conversations in this space too need to come from an informed space and within our expertise. To make it clear, Everyone can talk about Mental Health, but only professionals should talk on Mental Illness and the technical aspects of recovery. Just because someone has a lived experience of a Mental Health condition, it doesn’t make them an authority on that condition, just as is the case with a physical health condition - having a heart condition doesn’t make that person a cardiologist! That being said, professionals need to also be aware of their roles - neither should titles be used interchangeably (that can create confusion for many) nor should they assume that just because they are a Mental Health professional, that they can be a Mental Health educator too. Think about it further in terms of our cricket metaphor from earlier - there are several great players from over the years, but does that mean each one of them will make a great coach as well? Clearly no, because if that was the case, can you think of the number of academies and coaching clinics we’d have today?
Now, you may wonder, how can we all be better Mental Health allies when it comes to having conversations to spread the awareness? For starters, call out the misinformation and the falsehoods being propagated, but at the same time, also share the realities to counter those myths, and if needed, share reliable sources of information to support your stand. While we hope those propagating the myths will change their stand, seeing the realities will also make others who come across the original content more aware of the realities. On some days, you may wonder why jump into the conversation because its ‘not your circus, not your monkeys’, but we need to call it out because it can be damaging to the cause and to anyone reading it, whether or not they have struggled with their Mental Health. Another part of calling out the misinformation is around calling out the poor portrayal of Mental Illness or Mental Health struggles in the movies, television and the media. Unfortunately, many stories involving crime reference the perpetrator's mental illness. Movies, TV shows, and video games tend to portray people with mental illness as dangerous. Talk openly with others about the fact that most people with mental illness are not a danger to anyone.
Let us start to change the way we look about Mental Health - start to look at it as a continuum. Rather than assume you're either mentally healthy or mentally ill, acknowledge that we all have ups and downs in life, and there are times when your mental health will be better and times it will be worse. If you do feel comfortable, talk openly about periods in your life when you've felt that you're doing poorly in terms of your Mental Health. Make it clear to anyone listening that you believe mental illness can happen to anyone and it's important to seek help. You may also choose to share stories of hope and signpost them to resources which can help them in their healing journey.
Lastly, know that semantics matter, no matter what anyone says. We need to watch our vocabulary and the way we talk about Mental Health - words like ‘schizo’, ‘bonkers’, ‘crack-pot’, ‘whacko,, ‘psycho’ need to be avoided at all costs and be weeded out of our vocabulary because they damage the narrative around Mental Health. Our language can a long way to help people feel safe, validated and comforted, and we need to ensure we strive to do that. When having conversations with someone who is having a hard time with their Mental Health, we need to gently check in on them and validate how they are feeling, even if sometimes we may not be able to exactly understand the feeling. Remember, they need empathy and not sympathy - empower them rather than becoming their crutch.
By regularly talking about it, posting about it, doing something about it we can do our bit to keep the efforts going. Going beyond talking, we also need to be better at checking in on people we care about more often rather than once in a year when it is trending, otherwise we too are part of a hollow gang who jumps on the bandwagon of a trending hashtag on social media. Keep talking about, Mental Health matters everyday and needs those conversations to be raised and made more mainstream. Know that we all have Mental Health, and those who might be struggling with their Mental Health or having a diagnosis of a Mental Illness are living it every single day. Let’s keep the conversation and awareness going if we want to make a difference. Let us all pledge to do our bit in enhancing awareness about Mental Health. There is no health without Mental Health.
Everyday should be Mental Health day & Mental Health Action day - and that change will begin with us. The time has come to be that change.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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