New Perspectives: May as Mental Health Awareness Month
May is known as Mental Health Awareness month, but what does that mean?
To give a little history, it was in 1949 that May became nationally recognized as the month of mental health awareness. This was little over 20 years before the peer support movement began! The idea is to take time to share information on mental health diagnoses such as bipolar, schizophrenia, dissociative identity, anxiety, depression, among others through the use of media, film, and events. While this wasn’t ill intended, these conversations have historically been led by the doctors who are diagnosing or by impacted family members rather than the people experiencing the diagnosis themselves. Because of this, among other reasons, people have begun to share how this “call on to action” can sometimes unintentionally feel more oppressive, tokenizing, and dehumanizing rather than collaborative, empowering, or celebratory.
For one, the language that society continues to use regarding mental health has negative annotations to it. The term “mental illness” can make it feel like there is something wrong with someone for experiencing the world the way that they do, existing as they are. It also implies that there is a need for treatment to “get better” instead of focusing on how we as a society can be more supportive and accessible to people as they are. We might further consider that many times different treatments or support services aren't easy or possible to access, and for some populations may be even more out of reach than others. Beyond that, certain “treatments” aren’t healing experiences for the people participating, and are many times not self-referral stays.
Another thing to consider is that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to a diagnosis. Mental wellness requires you to look at the whole person, not just the single word that they're labeled under. Being roped into a category can be toxic and unfair to a person, especially due to the many stigmas that people tend to attach to certain diagnosis labels. Don’t let the label replace the person in front of you.
Instead of approaching interactions with others out of fear and judgement, please approach with curiosity and compassion. There is beauty in someone living as they are, with or without a diagnosis. Oftentimes people don’t have the permission or safety to do so because they are seen as unfit, unwell, or in need of help when they might simply be having a hard moment and express themselves in a unique way.
While we can spread information on the topics of mental health through slogans and hashtags, I insist that we go deeper with integration by intentionally seeking out connection with our peers who have lived experience in mental health struggles, diagnoses, or both. This is not only listening, but also hearing what they have to say. They get to tell us what they want or don’t want from us as allies or support systems; what they need or don’t need.
All that said, I remain grateful that May stands as a month to represent the topic of mental health. There are more and more people sharing their stories and learning opportunities seem to present themselves everywhere! Remain in a place of grace, exist with an open heart, and approach with curiosity. Mental health awareness exists every day.