Monday was World Mental Health Day, but today’s another day…

Image: Jane Cockman

That you’d have to go out of your way to avoid media coverage of mental health topics – Waterford Whispers News anticipated responses like mine the other day! – is a testament to the hard work of the countless advocates and experts by experience who have braved the potentially inhospitable climate that is the public sphere over the last number of years. (And not to mention anyone who spoke up in previous times, for those trailblazers paved the way for the future generations to come.) It’s all hanging out now, with group after group being established in community after community, and Monday’s World Mental Health Day further illustrates the enormous progress that’s been made in recent times.

Twitter in particular was aglow with the hashtag #WorldMentalHealthDay, radio stations dedicated not just slots on shows but entire segments on their hourly news bulletins, and TV was in on the act as well. Awareness, it seems, is running high, and this presence, this spray-painting of topics pertaining to the mental health conversation across an increasingly receptive canvas, is to a great degree having the desired effect of force-feeding a society reticent to eat its greens.

What is awareness really doing, though? Aside from being a word that irritates some of the more world weary among us, it appears to be doing rather a lot, albeit in a gradual manner. It appears to have been a catalyst if not a driving force in the establishment of organisations like Pieta House in 2006 and the Irish branch of ReachOut in 2009 (big thanks to our Australian friends for founding the organisation in 1998). And in my native West Cork, it appears to be a priority of Lisheens House, who opened their doors in 2014 and have provided support to numerous people in need of an attentive ear. Numerous, too, are the other organisations out there borne of the desire to raise awareness. Sometimes the services come on stream first, with awareness following closely behind; at other times, the opposite is true; whatever the configuration, it’s a match made in heaven, as it’s often enough to just have the chicken and the egg and let a bunch of academics with an hour between projects resolve the issue of which came first.

So, while the rate might seem painfully slow in some regards, it’s a rate nonetheless. Chip, chip, chipping away, dismantling the entrenched beliefs clung to by some desperately, by others unwittingly, awareness is hard at work, its champions banging the drum relentlessly in the hope of someone else clapping along in time.

But what’s in a day? 24 hours, 1440 minutes, 86400 seconds…and it’s perhaps only with the seconds counter that, being a number of such a magnitude, we can draw any parallels to the mental health situation facing society today. Horrendously colossal, our crisis has brewed in screaming, agonising darkness for what seems like forever. It grew legs, our steady diet of silence feeding its vices and depriving it of essential vitamins. And grow, and grow, and grow and grow, it did, but the scales has been tipped, and now it’s time for empathy and compassion to grow and for silence to wither.

Days, as Pieta House remind us, move from darkness into light, with new dawns awaiting us around every corner. And although 86400 seconds is a lot, a day is not; and when it comes down to it, that can be great, if you’ve just had a rough one and can’t wait to start afresh after a stretch in the cot, but not so great if a message is just being embraced for its duration.

No aspersions do I cast on anyone here. On the contrary, I fully support World Mental Health Day and am a big fan of everyone attached to it. The progress…the progress…sweet, sweet progress. But we must remember that it’s up to us now to make sure it’s not just another ephemera.

The day after an awareness day can bring on feelings much like those produced by a walk through a camp site the day after the music festival is over. The location of an abundance of positive energy just 24 hours earlier, it’s now just a field littered with cheap tents. You look at your friends, and while residual traces of the party atmosphere linger in your glances between one another’s tired eyes and grinning mouths, you know it’s time to getifu out of there and make for home. Just as the festival recedes into memory, so the enthusiasm and receptiveness around mental health fades a little once the clock completes one full revolution and the media moves on.

A useful comparison here is World Aids Day, which Google tells me is December 1st this year. It took a while and a lot of drum-banging, but thankfully, a lot of people have absorbed that message. To many, unprotected sex is unthinkable. And even to someone who might be hearing the message for the first time on December 1st, they might buy a box of condoms and bear it in mind to use them when the chance arises throughout the year. Hear it once; think of it often. (The message, that is, not the sex. Well, yeah, the sex, too.)

Hear it once; think of it often. That’s what an awareness day wants us to do, with ‘hear it once, think of it seldom’ being anathema to them.

Except there’s no ‘them’ in this scenario. Them is us, us is them, all are we. In a way, the mental health conversation is the ultimate leveller, for everyone has seen the inside of their own mind and knows that it can do strange little things when it wants to. Maybe you like awake and easily dismiss the oddities offered up by your wandering thoughts as the by-product of an active imagination. Maybe you can’t dismiss them and you lie awake half the night. Or it could be that you’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. But it’s not as simple as that, and the distinctions aren’t simple either, and most of us probably have that t-shirt at the back of the closet. Unworn, perhaps, but we all know it’s there.

And when we scratch beneath the surface, it’s clear there’s no ‘day’ in this scenario, either. It’s 24/7. It’s 365. But that’s where ‘we’ come in. Campaigns can’t hold our hands any more than a tissue would water, and while such promotions are absolutely necessary and even more absolutely brilliant, they are but a call to arms, and like any call to arms, it’s the response that matters the most, not the call.

So here we are, armed with awareness and information like never before, knowing that we ourselves might be struggling, certain that many of our friends, family, or colleagues are too, and it’s up to each and every one of us to make sure the message is heard and support offered as far and wide as is possible every day the sun rises.

And rise, it does, breathing light and life afresh into beautiful dawn after beautiful dawn.