In recent years, the concept of mental health has gained traction, helping to reduce the stigma. As Canada observes Mental Health Awareness Week, I want to contribute to the conversation by considering why awareness is so important. After all, what does awareness get us? Does simply having everyone aware of something solve real problems? I want to address the “so what” question, when it comes to mental health awareness.
So what is awareness good for? Think of the days before we were aware of things like anxiety, depression, OCD, BPD, Schizophrenia, addiction, and PTSD. It’s not that these problems didn’t exist; we just didn’t have insight into why people were engaging in apparently self-destructive or anti-social behaviors, nor did we have the language to talk about it. Rather than viewing them as suffering from an illness, we attributed their behavior to either moral failings or insanity.
During the early pre-awareness days, if you had a mental health issue, you were labeled disturbed, nuts, confused, psycho, crazy, loony, demanding, or had a screw loose. If you appeared, from the outside, to be in control, you were weak, immoral, evil, lazy, or selfish. If you appeared to be out of control, you were thought to be insane, mad, or suffering from mania. These people were feared, like criminals; they were locked up in prison-like buildings or sentenced to death.
Growing up with a mental disorder, children were ridiculed by their peers, punished by their parents, and chastised by their teachers or clergy. The pervasive negative response further fueled the downward spiral of shame of isolation. Problematic thoughts and behaviors that could be managed by cognitive techniques or neurochemical adjustment were criminalized. But, just like getting tough on crime, getting tough on mental illness does not solve the underlying issue.
When we recognize that the underlying issue is not simply poor character, weak-will, or immorality, we come to see mental health the same way we see physical health: a problem that is not necessarily the fault of the individual and can be managed by a trained professional. Like a patient undergoing cancer treatment, a person suffering from a mental illness is now commonly accepted as a patient requiring psychological treatment. Although stigma still exists, persons who are suffering may now have a second chance.
This is the power of an accepting social environment. This is the power of awareness.