May is Mental Health Month, started in part to raise awareness, which begs the eternal question for me: what does it mean to be “aware”? The calendar is littered with awareness months for various medical conditions, some more well-known than others, but, as my friend Vicki likes to say, “awareness is not action.”
We can safely assume at this point that most people are aware of mental health. The question is not whether you know mental illness exists, but what you are going to do about it.
One part of awareness is understanding mental illness on a more personal level; our own Bassey, for example, discusses living with bipolar disorder and participates in mental health activism. I’m mentally ill and also cover mental health subjects for publications like The Guardian. Emily writes about her depression and Marianne has discussed her bipolar disorder.
You know, then, that mental illness exists, and you’ve had a window into the lives of some people with mental illness, but that window doesn’t necessarily provide you with grounds for action. It might create empathy, and it helps break down your own conceptions about mental illness and what it looks like, but how do you turn that into something?
It’s estimated that one in four people in the United States has a mental health condition. That’s a lot of people. Many of those people don’t receive treatment, or get treatment later in life -- some of them experience severe mental illness before it’s identified and addressed. Some pay a high price for that late diagnosis, and they shouldn’t have to.
One important thing mental health allies can do is fight stigma, because deconstructing cultural attitudes about mental illness makes society safer for mentally ill people. One reason people don’t get treatment is because they fear mental illness and see it as a bad thing, and they’re worried about the repercussions of seeking care.
Being mentally ill can result in losing your job, having your children taken away, difficulty finding housing, and other barriers that are the result of social attitudes -- the problem isn’t that you’re crazy, but that society has a problem with crazy people.
Fighting stigma requires being aware of the fact that at any given time, some of the people around you may be mentally ill. Some may be open about it, while others may not – they may be concealing their diagnoses because they are afraid of the reaction, or because they need to live in stealth to protect themselves.
For example, mental health diagnoses can affect government clearances. Rather than openly getting treatment and managing their mental health conditions, some government employees hide their mental illnesses because they want to keep their jobs. Needless to say, this can have really devastating results.
Some of the people around you may also have undiagnosed mental illness. Making sure they know you’re nonjudgmental and want to create safe spaces will make it easier for them to come to you for help, if they want it. It will also make it easier for them to honestly evaluate their situations and seek help on their own, and to talk to you about it.
Think about your words and how you frame mental illness and mentally ill people. What seems like a casual throwaway comment to you can be a signal to someone around you that you are not sympathetic to people with mental illness, and aren't a good person to ask for help.
Being crazy really, really sucks sometimes. One of the ways to deal with that is talking to people about it, which can be difficult when you’re in an environment that is not friendly to crazy people -- or just an environment where you’re not clear on what the reaction to your mental illness will be.
Here at xoJane, for example, employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health conditions and how they affect their lives and work. That’s not the case in all workplaces, even though some simple measures like a clear nondiscrimination policy could be put in place to make it clear that mentally ill employees will receive support if they want it.
Educating yourself about mental illness through personal narratives and reflecting that in your behaviour is an important step, because it can help you understand what people are going through, but the next step is to externalise that.
Be aware that reading personal stories doesn’t give you an all-encompassing knowledge of what it’s like to live with mental illness -- Marianne and Bassey, for example, have two very different experiences even with related diagnoses. But it does give you an insight, and you can use that insight to think about how to be more inclusive of people with mental illness in your own life.
A big part of that inclusivity is listening to people, and reflecting what they are saying, and working with them to make a safer environment. Whether you’re talking about a co-worker or a family member, you can play an active role in that person’s quality of life. Don’t dismiss emotional reactions as examples of the crazy at work. Listen to people. When they identify problems, talk with them about how they want to see those problems resolved.
Be aware that the things inside our heads are very, very real to us. They might seem utterly irrational and ridiculous to you and sometimes they might frustrate you, but saying that doesn’t help us; taking what we’re saying seriously and finding a way to help us work through it helps us.
Admitting when you’re in over your head helps us. Because, hey, we get it. Crazy sucks for us sometimes and it sucks for you sometimes, too. Unfortunately, we can’t take a break from it. But you can, and you should if you’re endangering yourself or others. Just as we need our own spaces with other mentally ill people to talk about the issues that affect us, you need spaces with fellow allies to talk about your own issues; and you need your own support system, because a burned-out ally helps no one.
And if you’re saying “but I can’t take a break,” well, welcome to the next step, which is political agitation. If you’re caring for a mentally ill loved one and you have no respite care, that’s not a crazy problem: That’s a social problem. That’s a “there should be a better social and safety network” problem, because unpaid and low-paid caregiving is a serious, serious issue.
You shouldn’t have to be on call 24/7 and that’s not your loved one’s fault, that’s the political system’s fault. So join us. March with us. Write letters with us. Tell your local, regional and national governments to stop cutting mental health services. Ask your friends to help. Because no one should have to languish without treatment and support, and no one should have to live in fear of being outed or forced out of treatment.
And if you think all that that sounds tiring -- imagine how we feel.