Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and mobilize in support of mental health. Fran and I have shared numerous pieces in the past to mark WMHD and other mental health awareness days and events. Last year’s post for WMHD focused on the power of the spoken word. This year’s theme — mental health is a universal human right — covers a lot of ground. I can’t hope to go into everything in detail in a single blog post. Instead, let’s explore some of the different aspects and see where that takes us.
Mental Health Is for Everyone
The first thing to assert is the right of everyone to the best mental health possible. This includes appropriate and accurate information, support, and treatment for all who need it, when and where they need it. “Mental health for all” sounds fine, but what does that actually mean? Some mental health conditions present in and affect certain groups of people differently. The situations in which we find ourselves also affect our health and wellbeing to different degrees. Poverty, homelessness, social exclusion, exposure to violence or trauma, addiction, and other health conditions can lead to or exacerbate mental health conditions and limit access to help. But no matter who we are, where we live, or what our life looks like, we all have the right to feel good about who we are, including our mental health. It’s as fundamental a right as clean air and water, safe housing, being able to express ourselves without fear, or choosing how to live our lives. Stigma and discrimination relating to people’s mental health is as abhorrent as any other form of discrimination and needs to be called out and challenged every bit as strenuously.
How Can I Help?
Thinking about this on a global scale can be a bit overwhelming but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. No matter how good or bad support for mental health might be where we live, there are places and societies where it’s still very much a taboo subject. When we assert that mental health is a universal human right, we’re challenging that stigma and demonstrating it’s okay to talk about these topics. Wherever we do so, whether it’s close to home in our families, workplaces, and communities, or on the wider stage, we’re helping breach outdated cultural and societal barriers. At whatever scale we operate we are advocating for change. There are many ways to make a difference. Here are a few to get you started.
1. Share the Message
Start close to home by sharing the basic message that it’s okay to talk about mental health with your friends and followers on social media. Search for the tags #WorldMentalHealthDay and #MentalHealthIsAHumanRight and share any posts you find especially relevant to you. Share this blog post and other resources you find helpful. Remember that this isn’t just about one day in the year. Mental health affects people — including people you know and care about — every day of every year. Check out our list of articles for various mental health awareness days and events for information and ideas on how you can get involved.
2. Learn More
Commit to learning more about mental health. The more you know, the better you can support yourself and other people. Read our article on educating yourself about your friend’s mental health condition and our resources page. I took the internationally recognised Mental Health First Aid course several years ago which is something I’d recommend if you’re interested in learning more.
3. Support Mental Health Organisations
Consider donating, fundraising, or volunteering for organisations that foster mental health awareness and support those in need. Fran and I have taken part in the annual NAMI Maine fundraising walk, with Fran doing the walk in person and me doing the equivalent walk over here in the UK. Closer to home, I’ve taken part in sponsored walks for the Alzheimer’s Society, zip-lined from the Tyne Bridge in support of homelessness charity Crisis, and volunteered with UK anti-stigma campaign Time to Change.
4. Talk About It
Being open to talking about mental health with the people around you is perhaps the most impactful thing you can do. Talking about mental health as naturally as we might talk about our physical health or any other aspect of our lives lets people know we’re there for them no matter what they might be going through. Talking won’t fix deep-seated mental health issues and isn’t a substitute for professional services and treatment, but as I know from my experience with Fran and other friends it can be profoundly helpful and protective.
5. Advocate for Change
As well as educating yourself about mental health conditions, take time to explore the quality and availability of mental health services where you live. Engage with local and national debates and consider lobbying your political representatives to support policies to make mental health services more accessible and affordable in your community.
The Role of Technology
There’s a wealth of material online that can help us promote greater mental health awareness, and support ourselves and others. Websites for official organisations, charities, and health providers; wellbeing apps; and social media platforms help us connect with one another and find the information and support we need. Online peer communities provide safe spaces where we can share our experiences and talk with people who understand what we’re going through because they’ve lived with similar challenges. Health practitioner apps and websites can make it easier to book medical appointments, order prescriptions, and access test results. Video conference platforms such as Skype, Zoom, and Teams let us attend appointments without the cost and difficulty of traveling there in person. Crisis and support lines offer a wide range of services using technologies including phone calls, e-mail, and text (SMS) messaging.
Technology can be very effective in promoting mental health and wellbeing but it would be wrong to ignore the limitations and dangers. It’s easy to assume everyone has easy, reliable, and affordable access to the Internet, and the technology, knowledge, and skills to find the information and resources they need. That’s far from the case, especially in a global context. According to UK charity the Good Things Foundation, almost three billion people are digitally excluded worldwide, with ten million people in the UK lacking the basic skills needed for the modern digital world. Digital exclusion “can have a huge negative impact on a person’s life, leading to poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy, increased loneliness and social isolation, less access to jobs and education.” It can lead to social and cultural exclusion, and makes it hard to engage with healthcare, financial, and benefit systems as society moves increasingly online. All these outcomes can affect our health and wellbeing, whilst at the same time limiting our access to the information, treatment, and support we need.
Access isn’t the only issue. Not everything online is conducive to good mental health. Misinformation and unhealthy — even dangerous — information, influences, and practices abound online. The dangers are real and should neither be denied nor ignored. That said, they mustn’t be allowed to outweigh the very real positive impact that online connection can bring to us as individuals and to society as a whole.
In October 2016, I was a panellist in Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s annual It Takes a Community forum discussing social media and mental health. Fittingly, I attended virtually from the UK, appearing on a big screen alongside the other panellists who were there in person. As I described in a post for WMHD that year, we discussed people’s use of social media to share their lived experience, to help others living with similar conditions, or to participate in the wider movement challenging mental health stigma and discrimination. Given that my best friend Fran and I met online twelve years ago, live three thousand miles apart, conduct our mutually supportive friendship almost exclusively online, and have written a book about supporting friends living with mental illness no matter where they live, it’s a topic close to my heart.
Connection Is Everything
Whether online or not, at a distance or local, with strangers or with friends and family, the key to good mental health is connection. Indeed, we can reframe the right to mental health as the right to open and healthy connection. I expressed something of this in my closing remarks to the ITAC forum.
It isn’t just about sharing the stories of those who have mental illness or are living with that themselves. It’s about the families, the friends, all the rest of us sharing our stories of what that means to us and those who are dealing with this stuff. Because in terms of countering stigma it’s not the responsibility of those living with mental illness to convert the rest of us. We are all in this together. It takes a community. We’ve all got to step up to this.
Like tossing a pebble into a stream, opening yourself to talking about mental health has a ripple effect on your life and the lives of those around you. It’s helped me pay closer attention to my own mental health, built stronger and more meaningful relationships, and given me a focus and purpose I’ve never had before. I’ve learned skills and strategies that have led to me being more patient, understanding, and compassionate with myself and others. It’s also helped me focus on how best to use my skills and experience, at work and in my personal life. More generally, it’s helped me feel part of a wider community of people and organisations working to support those who are struggling and counter the isolation that mental health challenges can bring.
This World Mental Health Day, commit to making a ongoing, every day of the year difference. Do whatever you can to challenge stigma and discrimination in all its forms, and foster a fairer, more compassionate environment in which we can all realise our right to mental health.
Photo by Louis Hansel at Unsplash.