What The ABC’s ‘Mental As’ Campaign Needs To Get Right

Mental health awareness is important, but it’s not ‘awareness’ if it comes at the expense of real stories.

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Mental As is a collection of programming running across ABC TV, online and radio this week that deals with mental health, and which the ABC says will help “kick-start a national conversation” on the important issue of mental illness in Australia. High-profile personalities from a variety of television networks and media outlets, like The Project‘s Rove McManus, Lateline‘s Emma Alberici and Triple J’s Lindsay McDougall, are serving as ambassadors for the campaign. Debates will be held, comedy will be had, documentaries will ensue, all on the theme of mental health.

The idea is great, and they’ve already managed to raise well over $30,000 toward mental health research, a huge indicator of its success. But I’m withholding judgement about Mental As as an awareness campaign until it’s over, because I’ve been burned by mental health awareness before.

It basically boils down to what I’ll call the Mental Illness Narrative, or MIN, which usually shows itself via an interview, profile or first-person account aiming to raise awareness of mental health issues. The narrative will talk about the subject hitting some kind of crisis point before they either realise they need help, or a friend or loved one tells them to go get help. Help is (sometimes only eventually) sought in earnest, and relief comes pretty much right after the six-week waiting period for the medications to kick in (or after committing to therapy, yoga, acupuncture, whatever it may be). And they all lived happily ever after, but for the odd down day. Here are some examples, which usually lead with the phrase “how I overcame” or “how I survived [insert mental illness here]”.

The MIN is in action when you look at a campaign like R U OK? Day, an awareness campaign in which people are encouraged to play the role of concerned friend, getting the person who consistently seems depressed to take that step and go seek help.

There’s nothing wrong with the MIN, and R U OK? Day itself is an admirable initiative. The problem starts when the simple narrative of seeking help — and it easily working out from then on — becomes THE way to understand mental health problems. It ignores the reality of having an ongoing mental illness; one where the best you can hope for is remission rather than recovery. It also ignores the reality of bad doctors, misdiagnoses, and when the meds simply don’t work or cause weird side-effects like lactation. It ignores the fact that some people feel silenced or isolated in the medical system itself.

I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I struggle to make my story fit into the MIN that proliferates in the general media. I find the MIN alienating, like there’s a rift between popular understanding of mental illness and what it is I actually go through. People affected by snags, persistent issues, and non-linear mental health journeys have just as much of a right to visibility as those with an easier time through treatment. Friends and family of those people also have the right to seek advice as to what to do in these situations.

It’s important to convey the complexity of managing mental illness, and it’s important to diversify mental illness accounts in order to highlight the tremendous work of carers that is often ongoing. For instance, the effort my partner puts in to help care for me is sidelined by the MIN, or the idea that my recovery journey is over by virtue of the fact I’ve sought help.

With all this in mind, I’m going to judge Mental As based on the following questions:

Does it actually “kick-start the conversation”, as promised, in a way that we haven’t already seen?

Does it portray people who deal with mental illness as an ongoing part of their daily life? And their carers too?

Does it resist easy answers (like ‘go to the GP’) for problems that are serious, multi-faceted, and long term?

Does it represent the diversity of the 45.5% of us who will experience a mental illness at some point in our lives?

Mental As is obviously a great step forward. I think it’s amazing that a major television network has dedicated a whole week of programming to mental health. I just hope that they don’t simplify representations of the real people out there who are relying on them to achieve true awareness.

Postscript: After I wrote this piece I was given the opportunity to go on air on ABC local radio and talk about youth mental health as part as Mental As. The show was respectful and allowed me to mention the fact that it took me 18 months from diagnosis to find an adequate combination of medications, and that it took me 13 years to get a diagnosis. It also allowed me to speak about the mix of feelings that come along with a diagnosis (both fear and relief). It has given me hope when it comes to the issue of representing people with mental illness — the journey isn’t always simple.

Go to the Mental As webpage here.

Erin is a freelance writer and reviewer based in Sydney. Her work has appeared in Ramp Up, The Age, Voiceworks, Birdee, and others. She is passionate about Sunday brunch and the Oxford comma. Her twitter handle is @xerinstewart