by Finn Northrop
Trigger warning: Rape, sexual assault and domestic violence
Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, and each year this presents a fantastic opportunity for huge numbers of committed activists to not only raise awareness of a variety of mental health conditions but also to promote self-care and self-help methods, and to give people the bravery to seek help – whether that means reaching out to close friends or taking to the step of going to their GPs and seeing what services are available to them.
This is often all wrapped under the banner of ‘Breaking the Stigma’, of making discussions about mental health a normal and acceptable part of everyday life, of ending the entrenched idea that to admit mental health problems is some fundamental sign of weakness. This is absolutely vital work.
However, throughout this week, every time I hear a politician talk about stigma, every time I hear a Lib Dem talk about the importance of ‘talking’, every time I hear a Tory say ‘parity of esteem’, I’ll have to supress the desire to scream. Because the idea of breaking the stigma has been bastardised by the political class. It’s been reduced to a soundbite to deflect from their own woeful failure, their own chronic underfunding and cutting of mental health services, their own contributions to the capitalist system that is fundamentally responsible for fostering a society in which ordinary people are not only encouraged, but forced, to put their work above their own wellbeing.
the idea of breaking the stigma has been bastardised by the political class. It’s been reduced to a soundbite to deflect from their own woeful failure
I refuse to applaud politicians for directing people the very services which they have run into the ground. There is little point in fostering a society in which people are open about their mental health but are unable to make any changes to their lifestyle out of economic necessity and unable to get help from professional services because they’ve been savagely cut by Tory and Lib Dem austerity.
To tackle the mental health crisis is a monumental task that will be a long and protracted fight, it involves radically increasing the funding given to mental health services at every level, it involves fundamentally reforming the relationship between our work and our wellbeing, reducing work hours and fighting for an expansion of workers’ rights. It means government accepting that those who suffer institutional societal oppression need support, that means ensuring that organisations and charities that support LGBT+ people exist and are supported, it means ensuring that survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape have properly funded support services.
© Neil Hall/PA
But instead of tackling any of these issues, the likes of David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt merely give meaningless soundbites about how we should be more open and accepting of people with mental health issues. Well guess what Jeremy I don’t want your acceptance I want to able to go to GPs that don’t have to put me on a bottomless waiting list. I don’t want you to hold a sign saying that you care, I want you to accept that you support a system that thrives when the working class are forced to suffer and break themselves in order feed their own family. I don’t hate the idea of breaking the stigma, I hate the way it’s utilised to deflect from underlying causes.
The Establishment has essentially decided that ending stigma is the acceptable response to the mental health crisis, evident through the plethora of celebrities who come forward to parrot the politician’s lines and become patrons of various charities. The visibility of public figures with mental health issues can also be incredibly beneficial not only in normalising mental health but also in making young people understand that they’re not alone. Yet rarely does a celebrity get political, rarely do they use their platform to lambast those responsible for the crisis. Instead they say empty words. Because that’s acceptable. And Safe.
I don’t hate the idea of breaking the stigma, I hate the way it’s utilised to deflect from underlying causes.
The lack of nuance in discourse on mental health is also patently obvious thanks to this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme – relationships. This has massive potential to start genuinely interesting conversations about how helpful strong friendships and familial bonds can be. As well as giving people the strength to severe un-healthy and toxic relationships. Humans are generally inclined toward relationships of all kind, from romantic relationships to friendships. Little is more re-affirming as a human as to know that there’s someone in the world who, out of their own choice not obligation, loves you absolutely and would take a call from you at any hour no matter how big or small, no matter how easy or difficult it is to explain your issues.
It’s also important to talk about the incredible importance of self-care, of knowing your own limits and when you need to be alone and just look after number one. We are encouraged to define ourselves in relation to other, in a patriarchal society this is often a problem forced onto women, they are expected to meet standards being a perfect daughter or girlfriend and thus are encouraged to disregard their own health in order to preserve relationships that may be toxic. Last week was an incredible platform to spark discussions on how to foster healthy relationships that allow for autonomy and self-care as well as emotional disclosure. However I fear that what we instead get is 10 second soundbites of Tory government ministers talking about heteronormative, nuclear family relationships before screaming “END THE STIGMA” at the end, so they follow the party guidelines on how to deal with mental health questions.
I want to close by saying thank you. Thank you to the committed activists whose work this week, and indeed all year, will save and improve lives. Thank you to Sabbatical Officers in Students’ Unions who make mental health a priority. Thank you to the NUS officers who make mental health a priority.
And fuck you to all those that’ll use the work of those amazing people to cover their own failures.
Featured image © mentalhealth.org.uk