Talking about mental health isn’t always the answer

The commonplace advice is reductive and unhelpful

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First of all, I should put out a disclaimer. I am not dismissing the issues of day-to-day mental well-being, or even the more serious problems associated with mental illness.

I am not, in the words of professional attention-seeker and part-time psychologist Piers Morgan, telling our generation to “man up.” The mental suffering of people of all ages is real. What I am questioning is whether the current, popular situation – namely “talking” about “mental health” – is really working?

I put “talking” and “mental health” into inverted commas for a reason. Talking can be a great way of making sense of how we are feeling, and identifying problems before they develop into more serious ones. However, we need to be conscious of how, where and when we talk, and what we really mean by “mental health.”

A throwback to the good old days when everyone just ‘manned up’

This calls for a little clarification of terms I am using. Mental well-being refers to the day-to-day of how we feel, think and behave. Mental illness is when a more serious diagnosable problem of mental well-being emerges. Mental health, on the other hand, has become a general, almost socio-cultural term to describe the two.

A lot has been made of Prince Harry and Lady Gaga opening up about their past struggles concerning mental health. However, this is a particular sort of talking, in that two popular figures used their experience to influence public attitudes. However, they were not necessarily proposing talking as the solution to their personal issues, or at least not talking in general. Lady Gaga, for example, takes medication. Prince Harry sought the professional help of a counsellor on many occasions, and took up boxing to channel and control his feelings of grief at the loss of his mother. He dealt with long-term problems in a controlled, structured way.

Harry’s discussion of his past struggles is welcome, but should not be seen as an unequivocal endorsement of “talking.”

However, a somewhat inevitable 21st century problem is that a lot of “talking” occurs online, where the lines between public advice and personal solutions are blurred. Online, we risk issues of day-to-day mental well-being (something requiring constant attention) and more serious problems of mental illness (a diagnosable condition) being conflated into the category of “mental health”.

Take The LADBible’s coverage of “mental health” for example. Articles encouraging mental self-awareness are mixed in with those of celebrities talking about chronic depression or bipolar disorder. Undirected, uncontrolled reading and watching of online advice can amplify a passing problem of mental well-being into something more serious. Self-awareness should be encouraged, but this can easily slip into terrifying over-consciousness.

From personal experience, it’s easy to feel as though a one way stream of disembodied online voices is telling you to look for mental illness, and telling you to talk. As a result, an emphasis upon “talking” as a healthy solution can almost make you feel as though you are doing something wrong if you stay quiet. This is not what talking should be. Talking should be a choice, and something initiated on a considered, personal level, rather than through what is turning into cultural pressure. It works for some people but not for all, and there are a multitude of other solutions for the maintenance of mental well-being.

We need to feel as though we are offered a hand, rather than ordered to take it.

A current emphasis on the importance of talking also assumes that the stigma surrounding mental health is mainly social, rather than personal. It is possible to have kind, supportive friends and family and still be entirely unwilling to talk. Creating good (offline) spaces where people feel willing to talk is a step in the right direction, but often the fear of being judged comes from within, and thus a more nuanced approach to talking is needed.

Finally, the development of a crude, popular understanding of “mental health” in public consciousness can have grave implications for mental illness. We can discuss mental health all we want, but the current provision offered by the NHS is simply inadequate as it stands. Those requiring medical attention are faced with a shortage of local beds and an exhausted workforce. In terms of our immediate concern, talking is not the only priority, and instead we should be putting pressure on any government to increase NHS spending where it is really needed.

Talking about mental health is important insofar as it increases public consciousness, and provides an option for those who see it as useful. However, alone, and unspecified, talking is insufficient, and potentially harmful to mental well-being.