While talking about our mental health challenges with friends and family can provide well-needed support, that can’t be the end of the conversation. MORR steering group member Jenny talks about the structural changes to the mental health system needed to backup anti-stigma campaigns.
Like all mental health awareness days, I anticipated Time to Talk Day with dread. This year I even went as far as to (quite ironically) mute the hashtag on Twitter. It’s not that I don’t think we should talk about mental health - we absolutely should be. But we can’t just spend our lives talking about mental health, without also talking about the mental health system. Without genuinely listening and making the tangible structural change that is so desperately needed, talking can only get us so far; it’s being genuinely heard that creates change.
"This is why the elephant in the room isn’t mental ill-health itself, but the near non-existence of mental health support"
I muted the hashtag because I just couldn’t bear another 24 hours of pastel coloured graphics telling me to ‘have a cup of tea with a mate’ or a natter on the tube and everything would be OK. Because it won’t, not for everyone. For many, what would help is access to proper psychological therapy, ongoing medical treatment, support with social activities or work, managing finances, relationships or just daily activities. Sadly there are many things a cup of tea can’t cure. And this is why the elephant in the room isn’t mental ill-health itself, but the near non-existence of mental health support hidden behind these campaigns urging us to ‘reach out’ for help.
This is where I see the limit of anti-stigma campaigns. They encourage people to speak out about how they are feeling, but tend not to to acknowledge that mental health services have been decimated, and that these days when you 'reach out' for support, at best you'll be put on a waiting list of up to 18 months, and at worst you won't be seen at all. It is clearly a problem - if not dangerous and negligent - to encourage people to speak out and seek help when there is no help there.
"Of course it’s important to raise awareness. But we must also be making serious demands to the government for the funding and resourcing necessary to ensure that our mental health system can adequately support people’s needs."
Talking to friends can't be the only support we get.
When I have tried to raise this point with other service users and mental health campaigners, I have been met with disgust, as though I am somehow suggesting that mental health stigma and discrimination is acceptable. As though you can't critique a campaign without somehow being accused of being fine with mental health stigma. Of course we should tackle mental health stigma, of course speaking out is a ‘good thing’, of course it’s important to raise awareness. But we must also be making serious demands to the government for the funding and resourcing necessary to ensure that our mental health system can adequately support people’s needs. Otherwise how can we assure vulnerable people that they will get help when they ask for it? In reality, until the government commits to making improvements, we have no guarantee.
It pains me to think that someone might finally be empowered to ask their GP for help after seeing campaigns like Time to Talk, only to be told that they face a wait of many months before they even get to see a mental health professional. This rejection of people at their most vulnerable sends a message that they are not a priority, not worth help, and is surely complete contradiction to the many anti-stigma campaigns that have sprung up over recent years. When words do not reflect reality, it breeds a dangerous mistrust that has the potential to force people back into silence again.
I think it would do us well to remember that it is not just those of us who have experienced mental health challenges who must bear the responsibility of ‘speaking out’ about mental health. For some people, bearing the messiest, most distressing times of our lives can be just too much, and yet many campaigns tell us the only way to change things is to share these most personal parts of ourselves.
We don’t all have the resources to access treatment as and when we need it, as the many celebrities who urge us to speak out do. Feeling ready to talk can be a process, and no one should ever feel forced into it.
This is why we need people to stand with us - professionals, MPs, teachers, friends, charities, GPs, parents, everyone. We need you to call out the underfunding of mental health services that is making us more unwell, rather than forcing people who are already struggling to bear the additional pressure of disclosing their most harrowing experiences publically, so the rest of society can feel like they’re “doing something” about mental health by patting them on the back and telling them how brave they are.
So yes, let’s keep talking, but let’s not forget about the real elephant in the room, the bigger source of shame; the chronic underfunding of mental health services.