Mental Health Awareness isn't just about a day, a week or even a month, mental health awareness is about a culture. Shoe-horning a culture shift into a week is not giving it the respect it deserves and will not work. What we need is long-term strategies to embed these changes.
I'm a behaviour expert and I know a thing or two about mental health. As a teenager, I was depressed and contemplated suicide. Later on, I worked as a health care support worker in acute and secure psychiatric wards, working with both adults and adolescents. When I became a teacher, I ended up working with the young people (some as young as 4) with severely unmet needs causing no end of complex mental health needs. As a consultant, I've given advice to secure units, and as a speaker I have delivered key notes and chaired conferences on the topic.
So, you could say I know a bit about the topic, and I welcome the increased awareness on the topic to start breaking the stigma, however I think focus on Mental Health Week is wrong and here's why.
Mental Health is a continuum, on one end you have people so ill that they commit crimes or take their own lives, at the other end you have people so happy and content they feel like they are walking on air. The phrase "Mental Health" is far more often used to refer to someone who has mental health difficulties or who is unwell.
So, having cleared that up for starters, where are the people talking about the positive mental health habits that we all should be doing, such as gratitude, mindfulness, meditation or physical exercise? Even making sure you have time to socialise with your friends contributes to positive mental wellbeing.
Diversity and inclusion are both focussed on making it alright to be who you are. All people, yes everyone, will experience a time of poor mental health in their life. It may be related to loss, trauma or separation, it could be (and is very likely to be) related to anxiety or stress about work. It is perfectly natural and the likelihood is that in every workplace of more than 10 people, at least one person will be experiencing some poor mental health at this very moment.
For this to be normalised in society, in businesses or even in schools cannot be done in a week. There is a culture change needed that recognises that mental health is just one form of health (just as we have poor or good physical health). To create that sort of change requires far more than a week, after which the posters and the pop-up stands can all be packed away whilst everyone moves on with their lives.
There are long-term things that can be done by employers and schools. I've been sat here with my team at The Mentoring School over the past few weeks, preparing for the launch of our accreditation scheme ACT for Mental Health. We've been working on the charter for businesses and educational settings to sign up to, and that doesn't just involve a few posters being stuck up. True cultural change happens through awareness, compassion and training - people need to make allowances for supporting poor mental health, whilst also providing opportunities to have good mental health too.
- It should begin with making everyone aware of the spectrum of mental health, from one end to the other. Seminars, awareness sessions or even webinars help people to ask the questions they need to ask. People are scared of what they don't know, and for many years people haven't understood mental health problems, so you need to begin with shifting those years of ignorance.
- Practices like gratitude, when taught to people, can reduce stress but far more importantly change the way they respond to complaints or problems. Consciousness sessions, meditation or yoga all help to focus on being in the moment and releasing underlying stress.
- Asking someone how they are when you know they have a mental health problem is hugely supportive, however most of us feel embarrassed and won't mention anything. Giving people access to information on mental health (positive and negative) doesn't cost a lot, but means that if they are concerned they aren't just relying on Google.
- Putting in a mentoring system helps to ensure that staff wellbeing is supported and nurtured all year round, not just at times of crisis. This helps with engagement, performance and retention - a must for any business!
In conclusion, I am very grateful for the focus on mental health, however urge every single person reading this article to think about something they could do on a weekly or a daily basis to help someone move towards the positive end of the scale, whether be a smile, a nod or asking how they are. Over time, that is what will make a difference.