Mental Health Awareness Month, Part 2

How about holding out hands instead of pointing fingers?
How about holding out hands instead of pointing fingers?

Last week, I saw a post by a mental-health advocacy Facebook page: a short video featuring “shirtless hunks” (this is how the video referred to them) – soldiers who’d returned home and lost fellows soldiers to suicide. “More vets commit suicide every year than die in wars,” the short video said, and then called for compassion and “action.” I commented, protesting the objectifying language, the use of the word “commit” and the frustrating vagueness of the unspecified call to do something.

I got ridiculed. This page replied to my comment and lectured me, as if I have no idea, what it “takes” to “commit suicide” – “We need to stop freaking out about semantic arguments and start being compassionate. But to take the semantic argument further, it takes a commitment to end your own life so I won’t mind at all if I end my own life and my friends say I committed suicide.” I replied, explaining that there’s no such thing as “just semantics” (but it’s hypocritical to tell me that I can’t use a semantic argument when they’re going to go right and head and do so); words matter and using language connected with crimes (like “commit”) works against the stated goal of creating a society that actually cares about its most vulnerable members. Someone else replied to my comment, “Facts upset you?”

I’ve had it. I’ve had it with the selfishness and inhumanity of social media. I’ve had it with the hypocrisy. I’ve had it with being ignored or ridiculed but very little else. The pain, isolation and suffering of many in our society doesn’t come from a “lack of awareness,” as these monthly campaigns lull us into believing. That’s just another myth.

Myth 3: There’s a lack of awareness.

I just really doubt there’s a lack of mental health awareness at this point. There’s a lack of knowledge about it, and a lack of willingness to talk about it accurately, or kindly, but the problems our society faces in regard to mental health are different than the ones that would be solved by injecting more “awareness” into the system.

Ultimately, lack of awareness isn’t the problem; lack of compassion is, and it’s patronizing to assume that one month of “awareness” without any social change is doing us any good. It’s just one more way we are used to help others feel good about themselves. Awareness only works if it’s accurate; Big Science is broken and unreliable (potently dangerous in a society that worships science); much of what we think we know about the chemical imbalance myth is shaped by the pharmaceutical industry and the loudest voices in mental-health awareness excludes anyone who does not fit into society’s tidy little boxes (gender, neurotypicality, what have you), whose story does not map to the “recovery” narrative and who, even though they don’t have cancer, remain “sick” for a long time.

Myth 4: “Recovery” narratives are inspiring.

The happy little linear “sickness to health” narratives being plastered all over mental-health blogs are alienating and misleading, especially when groups and pages that claim to be supportive, safe places are actually snake pits full of people interested only in one-liners and zingers rather than doing the hard work of understanding and actually holding space for people, particularly people who don’t have neat little point-A-to-point-B journeys through “illness” to “wellness.” The stories we actually need to hear are the ones that cannot be wrapped up in neat, happy bows, that are not “inspirational” or uplifting, but the ones that would actually force us to confront our ableism, our toxic optimism and our downright preference for easy relationships. If you really want to become mental-health aware, go sit with someone who is aware of mental-health issues for reasons they can’t control – they’ll be either the ones with huge, fake smiles on their faces or isolated from mainstream society. And then do it again. Every day, regardless of what month it is.

So post that “I Support Mental Health” meme or “10 Things Not to Say to Someone with Depression” if you want. Then, get out of your house and bring some good, healthy food to your friend who hasn’t been able to get off her couch for days. Text your sister about when she’s available to FaceTime or Skype with you in the coming week if she doesn’t live near you. Put together a care package – fun socks, a love letter (yes, friends can write love letters to each other), a favorite treat – and physically bring it to your coworker who’s been having a hard time. And then keep doing it. Every day, no matter what month it is. You are not too busy; this is the stuff life is.

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