Why now is not the time to stop raising awareness about mental health

"Every time we have a mental health awareness week my spirits sink. We don’t need people to be more aware. We can’t deal with the ones who already are aware."

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal Society of Medicine, in the British Medical Journal.

Raising awareness of any health issue is the crucial first step towards ensuring that people take action to improve their health and reduce the risk of becoming ill.

This is the case with cancer, smoking, heart disease, HIV and diabetes. These conditions require focused attention to prevent them, in which we can all play a part once we are well informed. They also need early detection so that treatment has the best chance of success.

It should not be any different for mental health. Official figures show that 61% of mental health problems go untreated. Many people do not even seek treatment for problems – with men significantly less likely than women to ask for help. The involvement of public figures and members of the Royal family in combatting the stigma of mental ill health and encouraging people to realise that there are steps they can take when their mental health is deteriorating has been a great help in overcoming this.

Others only get treatment when they reach crisis point. This reduces the chance of a fully successful recovery, causes substantial costs to people's lives and sometimes costs people's lives themselves. The demand on services is a failure to respond to need and act early, and is a failure to provide prevention and timely help in primary care. It’s not a result of too much awareness as Simon Wessely has suggested.

Raising awareness of mental health? We hold our hands up

Since 2000 we have run Mental Health Awareness Week each May, a campaign which has seen massive growth each year. With two in three of us experiencing a mental health problem in our lifetime, we aren't going to stop now. Only through awareness and having the tools to understand, protect and sustain our mental health, can we improve this. See what we did in Mental Health Awareness Week 2017.

Mental health problems are the great public health challenge of our time: two in three of us have experienced a mental health problem in our lifetime. Now is the time to give people the information they need and to equip all those public services, families and communities, who can do so much to protect mental health and prevent problems escalating into crisis.

The answers cannot be about doing more of the same. We can’t deal with mental health problems through a massive increase in highly specialised services – that is neither cost effective nor what people need. We need to focus on awareness and information for everyone on how to look after our mental health and preventative and early intervention support in our communities, particularly where we know more people are likely to experience mental ill health. 

Mental health problems are not inevitable. We have a moral duty to act much earlier and this can only be achieved if people themselves recognise that things can be different. This will not happen by us all keeping quiet and keeping quiet to spare the services from demand. It can only be achieved if people themselves recognise that things can and should be different.

We will gain nothing by putting mental health back in a box marked ‘too much’, ‘too difficult’ or ‘undeserving’.  This is where mental health languished for years, with the result that people of all ages suffered in silence, often experiencing shame, stigma and discrimination.

We wouldn’t discourage a man who found a lump on his testicle or a woman who discovered a lump on her breast from seeing the doctor, purely because our health services are under pressure. We shouldn’t do so for mental health problems either.

Awareness has an important role in turning this around, but action must always follow, and is just as important. 

When we do experience poor mental health, we need the attitudes we hold as a society, and the actions we have taken, to enable us to feel we can seek help.  We need to be confident this will be accepted, and that we, or our sister, brother, mother, father or friend, will be listened to and receive a caring, appropriate response.

We need answers, and earlier. Silence is not one of them.

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We won't stop raising awareness about mental health. Only with awareness can we get the UK thriving with good mental health. You can help us on our mission. Please consider a donation today.

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