Let’s talk about…Talking about mental heath

All talk: we’re overdue a shift in how we approach mental wellness

World Mental Health Day 2022 occurred this week, on Monday, October 10th. In a way, it is fitting for a day focused on mental health awareness to be held at this time of the year, as the autumn and winter months tend to be tough for a lot of people. No doubt this is especially true at the moment, as with a cold winter ahead of us amid high energy prices and an already dire cost of living crisis, the pressure is bound to affect people’s mental wellbeing.

Indeed, given the state of the world the past couple of years, a message like that of World Mental Health Day is badly needed; a message of advocating for mental wellbeing, and against social stigma. And this week saw an outpouring of positive sentiment regarding mental wellbeing being shared. After all, though it remains a pressing issue, mental health is something which we’ve grown to talk about much more openly in the past few years. We’ve all become increasingly cognisant of the importance of safeguarding our mental wellbeing, and are much more open when it comes to approaching the topic in conversation.

However, while such openness is undeniably welcomed, sometimes it seems like we have reached a stagnancy in how we approach mental health. A lot of it has to do with how so much mental health discourse is done online, and how oftentimes this leads to oversimplification or sugar-coating of what mental illness actually looks like, and how to deal with it, but the same is true of mental health discourse offline too. Yes, we talk about mental health openly now – but not always very deeply.

Too often, public discourse on mental health feels like it’s on a loop, repeating the same buzzwords and advice over and over. Mental health discourse has become very digestible, which is a good thing in that it makes raising awareness easier, but it has also had the unfortunate side-effect of misrepresenting the full extent of mental health struggles and how to deal with them.

The oversimplification of mental illness that was done to push the topic into public discourse has meant that people have a very narrow view of what mental illness looks like, and this in turn can feed into stereotypes and indeed trivialise the mental illnesses themselves. Similarly, it often means that the solutions and advice offered to people suffering are overly generalised too.

After all, advice like ‘start practicing mindfulness’ and ‘go for a walk in the evenings’, while perfectly beneficial things to do for one’s mental health, cannot be expected to tackle the problem entirely. Because the fact is people need better supports than self-care.

For example, anecdotally, I’ll often hear students complain that colleges’ go-to mental health efforts are always ‘wellness workshops’, despite students routinely citing a lack of counselling services or academic supports as their main pressures. We need to recognise that for most people, a lack of self-care isn’t the main burden on their mental health, that most people are struggling mentally because of wider economic, societal, and systemic issues. In our oversimplification of mental health issues, we seem to have become all talk, disinterested in digging deeper to address the roots of the issue, and this approach needs to change.

We need not just to continue talking about mental health openly, but to talk about it in a more in-depth way. We need to think about the wider pressures that influence mental health and how to address them if we want to see real change.