Why simply talking about mental health isn’t enough

Today has made me so angry. Don’t get me wrong, I totally bought in this at first. I changed my profile picture, header banner and even Tweeted a bit. But some of the stuff appearing under #timetotalk put all of the onus on the individual being responsible for mental health stigma – and this focus on stigma is problematic in itself. Let me explain.

I felt such anger when I read a Guardian article from a public sector worker saying that we need to ensure our families and workplaces give us the support we need. That makes a massive presumption we’ll let our employers know (by TALKING, obvs.) and then they’ll just do a 360 on their policies and support us. I’ve just been through hell on this, and I know others who’ve heard all the faux concern when they’ve first raised these issues, then FA changes have been made afterwards.

So, when you’ve fought to change the culture somewhere and it’s failed – and you’re being continually and systematically failed by societal structure and institutions that follow that norm, how do you do magically click your fingers and achieve change by talking about stigma? Did it not occur to this person that instead of blaming themselves by saying stuff like ‘I thought my workload would get easier’ his employer should have looked after the mental health of their employees? (I’m just venting here, I know it’s not that simple and there’s a hell of a lot of internalised oppression going on here.)

The sad truth is your employer isn’t going to change the rules just for you, it’s not in their financial interests to. The problem is again the way the world is viewed through profit and organisational lenses, instead of the people within its overall well being.

Socially acceptable – ‘let’s talk about this’ campaigns don’t tackle cuts, government policy, how people with mental health problems could become homeless and die on the streets, the amount of people that’s already happened to. They deal with the comfortable individualistic view that if we stick a post it note to our foreheads & take a selfie and ask the Tories to make some half-arsed verbal promises to improve things it’ll all be OK. They come from a place of presuming all we need to do is talk about it more – rather than tackling a structure and system that is fundamentally letting us down.

I do think these campaigns have their place. If our healthcare system, benefits system and employment laws were actually supporting those with mental health conditions properly, and the only thing we had to do was remove a bit of stigma and talk about it more, then they’d be relevant. But let’s face it, we’re really not in that place. And it’s getting worse.

(Disclaimer – I do know that Re-Think helped lobby against more cuts to the disability ESA payments WRAG group last week in parliament, which affects the payments of many people off work with severe mental health problems. However I personally think it won’t be long until this decision is overturned – and more needs to be done to actually reinstate a live-able income for those signed off because of disability.)

Not to leave this post on a completely negative note, the personal is political. We need to use employment law to the best of our ability, and challenge being treated unfairly. But also challenge the very structures that make that happen. I’ve come to the conclusion that mental health campaigns need radicalisation. If anyone’s up for a conversation about how we can actually make employers, government and other institutions actually make change happen, drop me a line.

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