New Zealand Law Society - Why Mental Health Awareness Week is well-meaning – but flawed

Why Mental Health Awareness Week is well-meaning – but flawed

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I will be enthusiastically participating in Mental Health Awareness Week this year, but here is why it might not be the best way to communicate about mental health. 

Our mental health underpins almost everything in our lives. Good mental health includes effective functioning of our brain, the brain’s connection with our nervous system, cognitive processing, meaning, self-awareness, relationships, and our interaction with our physical, social and cultural environments. Our mental health determines our wellbeing and our physical health. As the World Federation for Mental Health states, ‘There is no health without mental health.’ Our mental health is so fundamental to our meaning and existence that it is arguably more important than physical health.

Hugh Norriss
Hugh Norriss

Being aware of our mental health one week a year is therefore a curious approach. What are we doing with our mental health the other 51 weeks of the year? Do we take it for granted? If we are not acutely aware of our mental health each day, we will be automatically running the behaviours, thought patterns and relationships that will lead to outcomes in our mental health that may one day come to unpleasantly surprise us.  Additionally, if we are not highly aware of the mental health of others, we may not notice their struggle or dismiss it as nuisance or poor character.

The approach of making mental health one small compartment of a medically dominated health system has a long history going back several centuries and is based on now disproven ideas that mental health problems are mostly biological, and mental wellbeing is largely irrelevant. How is that going for us? Unfortunately, when looking at global world health, the data shows we have improved most physical health outcomes in recent times (pandemics not withstanding) but are failing with stress-related illnesses and mental health outcomes.

In recent years, the legal profession internationally has become increasingly concerned about the widespread mental health problems in its members, ranging from depression, anxiety, chronic stress, and substance misuse, and for many, the lack of sustainable mental wellbeing. This is often attributed to the nature of legal work, alongside the personality types that law attracts.;

Is it time to look at a completely different approach to mental health? One that puts mental health at the forefront of health and social policy and also empowers communities and workplaces in the skills of promoting and supporting mental wellbeing?

A suggestion I have is that in the future, instead of Mental Health Awareness Week, we should have awareness weeks for specific aspects of mental health that are in themselves huge issues. This could include Depression Awareness Week, Anxiety Awareness Week, Healthy Thinking Awareness Week, Stress Awareness Week, Kind Communication Awareness week, Anti-Stigma Awareness Week etc. It would follow the physical health model which has awareness weeks relating to sub-topics, assuming that overall physical health is an everyday necessity.

In the meantime, when we participate in Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, I do hope that we all ask the question ‘how can we keep up this same level of awareness for the other 51 weeks of the year?’

Hugh Norriss is an independent workplace wellbeing consultant with over 20 years’ senior management experience in the delivery and development of mental health services and mental wellbeing programmes.

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