Mental Illness Awareness Week is a time of the year when our attention is brought together and focused on the impacts of mental health. As with all campaigns, the importance of focusing on our mental health and healing practice should be extended past this period and integrated as a part of our everyday lives.
“There is no health without mental health.”– CMHA 2020
If you don’t know much about Mental Illness Awareness Week, I’ll give you a bit of backstory here. Mental Illness Awareness Week is an annual national public education campaign designed to help open the eyes of the public to the reality of mental illness. The week was established in 1992 by the Canadian Psychiatric Association. One of their major initiatives is the Faces of Mental Illness campaign, a national outreach campaign featuring the stories of Canadians living in recovery from mental illness in an effort to raise awareness and end the stigma associated with mental illness.
What Is Mental Health?
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, speak, behave, and act. It also can affect how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices in our lives. Mental health is fluid, meaning that there may be some periods of time when you feel like you’ve got it all together and other times when you feel like you’re completely stuck. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood, to adolescence, and through adulthood. Major events and milestones in your life may activate you to experience mental health difficulties and reach out for support.
Many factors contribute to mental health, including:
- Biological factors (e.g., genes or brain chemistry)
- Life experiences (e.g., trauma or abuse)
- Family history of mental health problems
- Cultural & religious norms
- Ability & disability (born or acquired later in life)
- Family dynamics & early childhood experiences
- Community involvement
- Social relationships
- Physical health conditions (e.g., exercise & health concerns)
- Racism, oppression, & injustice
In order to be able to address mental health and mental illness awareness appropriately, it’s important that we understand the various factors that influence our mental health. Many clients come to me and feel frustrated, confused, and helpless because they believe they are “to blame” for the mental health difficulties they’re experiencing. When we understand that as adults we are a product of our upbringing, environment, and societal structure (including factors beyond our control), it can be easier to go from blame to compassion for ourselves.
Seeking support is often the first step towards getting and staying well, but it can be hard to know how to start or where to turn to. It's common to feel unsure, and to wonder whether you should try to handle things on your own. But it's always OK to ask for help – even if you're not sure you’re experiencing a specific mental health problem.
You might want to seek help if you're:
- Worrying more than usual
- Finding it hard to enjoy your life
- Having thoughts and feelings that are difficult to cope with, which have an impact on your day-to-day life
- Feeling like you may be putting yourself or someone else in danger
- Interested to find more support or treatment
You can’t pour from an empty cup, and there’s absolutely no weakness in seeking support when you need it. There are many options for support out there, although you might find some are more suitable for you or more easily available. There's no wrong order to try things – different things work for different people at different times. Seeking help isn't always easy, especially when you're not feeling well. It can take time, but it's important to remember that you're not alone and you deserve support.
If someone lets you know they’re experiencing difficult thoughts and feelings, it's common to feel like you don't know what to do or say. But you don't need special training to show someone you care about them. Often just being there for someone and doing small things can be valuable.
Before you start, please remember that it’s not your responsibility to change someone else. If you find that you’re giving too much of yourself or have gone beyond your personal resources, think about taking a step back. Start small so that you don’t become overwhelmed or give more than you are emotionally or in other ways able to give.
Here are some ways you can provide support to others:
- Listen: Simply giving someone space to talk, and listening to how they're feeling, can be really helpful in itself. If they're finding it difficult, let them know that you're there when they’re ready.
- Be patient: You might want to know more details about their thoughts and feelings or want them to get help immediately, but it's important to let them set the pace for seeking support themselves.
- Offer reassurance: Seeking help can feel lonely, and sometimes scary. You can reassure someone by letting them know that they’re not alone, and maybe even help them find resources or clinicians online that may be a good fit if they’d like to speak to a professional.
- Stay calm: Even though it might be upsetting to hear that someone you care about is distressed, try to stay calm by taking deep breaths. This will help your friend or family member feel calmer too and show them that they can talk to you openly without upsetting you.
- Try not to make assumptions: Your perspective might be useful to your friend or family member, but try not to assume that you already know what may have caused their feelings.
- Keep social contact: Part of the emotional support you offer could be to keep things as normal as possible. This could include involving your friend or family member in social events, or chatting about other parts of your lives.
Mental Illness Awareness Week Ideas
One thing that we’ve seen all over the world is that kindness prevails in uncertain times. We’ve seen that amidst the fear, there’s also community, support, and hope. The added benefit of helping others is that it’s good for our own mental health and well-being – it can help reduce stress and improve our emotional well-being! Let’s shape a society that tips the balance in favour of good mental health for all of us, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.
Below are some acts of kindness to inspire you:
- Call a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while
- Tell a family member how much you love and appreciate them
- Arrange to have a cup of tea and virtual catch-up with someone you know
- Arrange to watch a film at the same time as a friend and video call
- Tell someone you know that you’re proud of and thankful for them
- Send a motivational text to a friend who’s struggling
- Send someone you know a joke to cheer them up
- Send someone you know a picture of a cute animal
- Send an inspirational quote or interesting article to a friend
- Send an inspirational story of kindness that people around the world are doing for others to someone you know
- Offer to send someone a takeaway or a meal
- Offer support to vulnerable neighbours
- Donate to food banks or a charity
- Reach out to call a friend, family member, or neighbour who’s experiencing loneliness or self-isolation
- Offer to skill share with a friend via video call – you could teach guitar, dance, etc.
If you’d like to continue pursuing some personal resources to better understand mental health, below are some recommendations to get started.
- Maybe You Should Talk to Someone - Lori Gottlieb
- (Don’t) Call Me Crazy - Kelly Jensen
- The Happiness Trap - Russ Harris