I used to have a day job teaching about sustainability. Sustainability has now been enshrined as key buzzword of our modern age, and through teaching it over the years, I have realised that the more widespread its use the more meaningless it has become. When an eco-anarchist occupying land proposed for fracking can use the word to describe deep-green environmental protection, and Theresa May can use it to defend austerity as 'fiscal responsibility'; it's clear the word has no common understanding. It is popular because it is vague, and because it is vague, no one can disagree with it. After all, who wants to argue for being un-sustainable?
I feel the same way about the word 'awareness'. It offers little in the way of programme for change, only perhaps a vague and individualised sense of responsibility to appear as not 'un-aware'. I talk about trans issues a lot, and often people tell me that what is needed is 'trans awareness'. It's true that the vast majority of people have a lot to learn about trans people; but at the same time there are many in government who have heard at length about trans issues - such as the findings of the recent Trans Inquiry - and just choose to not act on this knowledge. It's not always a matter of education, but a matter of priority and distribution of resources. The discourse on 'awareness' constructs being aware as an innately good thing, but you have to act on that awareness for there to be a meaningful impact. Similarly there are some people, such as TERFs and fascists, who are very much aware of trans people, they just simply do not want us to exist and are organising to make that grim vision a reality.
Mental health awareness week was a fortnight ago, and as someone who has experienced mental health problems, I felt very conflicted about the whole thing. I agree that there is a great need for more popular education around mental health, but I wasn't sure about the proclamations that "mental health matters!" I was seeing across my social media feeds. For me, mental health matters because it is material, it is impacted by public service cuts, poverty, and the desecration of the welfare system. But these awareness campaigns often feel divorced from this reality which is making people ill or exacerbate their illnesses. As with trans issues, awareness only goes so far, action is where it is at. We need to put the same energy into fighting cuts to the services that people with mental health problems rely on that we do into awareness.
The fact is, we currently live in a society that breeds mental ill health. Anxiety and depression are at epidemic levels, especially if you are a person who experiences minority stress or are from multiple oppressed groups. We know that problems such as anxiety and depression have both a biological and environmental root, and the fact that marginalised people are more prone to mental ill health shows us is that oppression forms a social environment in which mental ill health can thrive.
Our society works on a logic of punishment, underscored by an almost constant state of surveillance. Whether it's the job centre regime, zero hours contracts, SATs, social media, or workplace performance indicators, we are constantly watched, tested, and managed. We feel the fear of just how easy it is to be sanctioned, blocked, sacked, or otherwise punished for even minor transgressions. This fear is especially real for those of us from marginalised groups, who have to contend with ingrained societal prejudice on top of this increasing feeling of precarity and disposability. In this context, the performative nature of saying "mental health matters!" on social media whilst not supporting your mental mates, or actively involving yourself in the fight against austerity feels like part of the problem. When social capital is distributed according who has the best twitter take, it can often feel like political organising is dis-incentivised in favour of vague platitudes on awareness which no-one could ever disagree with.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want to be that person who lazily blames social media for social problems as if twitter or facebook invented anxiety or our tendency to find talking easier than organising. Talking is easier than organising, and sometimes talking is all we can do and that's fine. The problem goes much deeper and has been around much longer. It is rooted in the punitive logic with which capitalist structures respond to all social problems: that difference makes us disposable. From prisons to primary schools, social media to benefit sanctions, we need to challenge this tendency to punish wherever we find it. Our humanity should never be up for grabs. Only by challenging this drive to dehumanise can we start the work of building a different society; one which has a logic of good mental health and happiness at its core.