Mental health: awareness is great, but action is essential | Dean Burnett

Mental health: awareness is great, but action is essential | Dean Burnett

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It’s mental health awareness week, 2018. And that’s good. It’s important to be aware of something that affects literally everyone, and that a quarter of the population regularly struggle with. It’s weird that anyone wouldn’t be when you put it in those terms, but that does seem to the case.

Perhaps the term is a bit misleading, or not specific enough. It’s not exactly mental health that people need to be made aware of, so much as the fact that mental health can, and regularly does, go wrong. And when someone’s mental health does falter or fail, they should receive the same concern and help that someone with a more obvious “physical” ailment should get, not scorn and stigma, as often happens.

This is where awareness helps. If you end up with depression, anxiety, OCD or any other condition, it can be hugely debilitating, often consuming your daily existence. Having someone, be they a family member or total stranger, dismiss it outright or accuse you of “faking it” or similar can only make it worse, compounding the problem.

This is how campaigns to raise awareness of the issues can be beneficial. Just like how increased exposure to people of different ethnicities or backgrounds has been shown to reduced feelings of prejudice and suspicion, so increased exposure to, or discussions about, mental health problems and what they mean for those who deal with them can enhance the understanding, or even just the patience, of those who don’t have to.

The human brain, powerful as it is, can still be overwhelmed by the complex world we inhabit, so when it comes to creating mental models of how the world works, it operates a general “stick to what you know” policy. As such, things that are different or unfamiliar, especially if they’re confusing and uncertain or introduce an element of perceived threat or danger, are met with suspicion, doubt, dismissal and so on. All are defence mechanisms, in a way; it’s the brain saying “this is NOT how the world is meant to work, so I must dismiss this challenging new information”.

But the brain is not that inflexible. Our idea of how the world (and those in it) works is adaptable and ever-updating, based on what we experience in our day-to-day lives. And if those experiences involve people discussing mental health and the issues around it, that’s more likely to become part of how we see the world and so has less chance of unsettling us overall.

Woman with her head in her hands as levels of anxiety among British people are rising, a mental health charity has warned. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday May 12, 2014. Almost one in five people from around the UK feels anxious a lot or all the time, the Mental Health Foundation said. A survey conducted by the charity found that almost half of Britons feel more anxious than they used to. Around three-fifths of the 2,300 British adults polled said that they experience anxiety on a daily basis.



There have been many years of progress, but still the most common image in any mental health search is the classic ‘headclutcher’. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

This is especially important for mental health, as opposed to more physical ailments, because mental health problems often affect people’s minds and understanding rather than their bodies (although there’s copious overlap). Basically, someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis may not realise this. Many need help and assistance to even accept they have an issue that requires dealing with. And the more there are people around them who are “aware” of mental health problems and how they manifest, the more likely this assistance is.

So, yes. Mental health awareness is good.

But it’s not an answer in and of itself. And it can actually be detrimental in some circumstances.

The main problem is, the human brain is very good at becoming aware of things, but it’s a lot harder for this awareness to lead to changes in behaviour. Abstract concepts and understanding can be useful, but things that cause strong sensory or emotional reactions carry more “weight” as far as our grey matter is concerned. For instance, dieting is hard because although we know the risks of high-calorie foods etc, we like pizza and cake. The sensory pleasure you get from the latter often outweighs the intangible understanding of the former when it comes to deciding what to do and what decisions to make. Cigarette packaging has been emblazoned with images of the ghastly consequences smoking can have for years, and yet smoking is still pretty common.

Similarly, having an abstract awareness of mental health issues does not automatically translate to a willingness or ability to do anything about them. Someone may be newly aware of what’s happening when a friend is in the grips of depression, but they could also be aware that helping them is likely to be demanding, stressful and largely unrewarding. The latter could well be what sways their behaviour, compelling them to keep their distance rather than intervene.

The point is, raising awareness of mental health is all well and good, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the problems and concerns around mental health will be affected in any appreciable way. Many people are “aware” that their clothes are probably made in sweatshops, or that their elected leaders are corrupt, or that their car is harming the environment, but do little or nothing about these things.

Prozac capsules



Often the discussion around mental health turns into one about the pros and cons of medication, but many people struggle to get to the point where that’s even an option. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The danger essentially lies in people thinking “raising awareness” is sufficient to deal with the issue, whatever it may be. In most cases, it isn’t. And this isn’t ideal. It’s a common complaint, about the people who, following a tragedy, change their profile pic on Facebook, or tweet “thoughts and prayers”, or sign a petition, or what have you. While an action like that may be 100% well intended, all it really achieves is making the individual feel better because they’ve “done something”. A sense of control in the face of unpleasant events in the world is restored: a sense of achievement at getting something “out there”. But in real-world terms, it changes nothing. And people feeling like they’ve done something when they haven’t is counterproductive when it comes to dealing with big, complex problems like mental health, because they’re less likely to feel motivated to do something else. Something that may be genuinely useful.

Essentially, mental health awareness is fine, but action is what’s actually needed. Awareness is great for prompting those with issues to seek help, but effectively meaningless if there’s no help available. And with ongoing cuts and shocking provisions to mental health services, that’s where the real problems lie.

If mental health awareness can be channelled in to actually dealing with the issues around it, then that would be great. But raising awareness is just the start of the process, not the end. There’s a lot of work that needs doing here. And that’s something we should all be aware of.

Dean Burnett discusses these issues further in his new book The Happy Brain and his previous book The Idiot Brain, both available now.



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