The Potential – And Frustration – of Mental Health Awareness Month

For decades, May has been “Mental Health Awareness Month,” an event formally observed by governmental actors and non-profit stakeholders alike. As a governmental official, I have seen my share of “awareness” days, weeks, and months, and taken the opportunity to deliver quite a few proclamations. Some of them get absurd. My all-time favorite was “Lake Awareness Month.” Different story.

Anyway, these events are important. They give people the chance to highlight timely and relevant societal ills and issues. They give advocates a platform to speak their mind and discuss what important things are occurring within their universe. For mental health advocates, it gives us a chance to talk about the signs of mental illness, suicide prevention, and talk about our issues in front of broader forms. At their core “awareness” events are useful tools for generating media attention and making sure that the public has an idea of what you are up to.

For issues like mental illness – issues that remain highly stigmatized or self-stigmatized – this is very, very important. These events can seem trite sometimes, but they do have meaning, as they can help steer people towards resources or make them become aware of problems from which they or a loved one suffers.

There’s a heck of a “but” here, though. It’s as simple as this: Awareness shouldn’t be confused for action.

What do I mean? Alright, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to an event on some important issue or other and listened to other elected officials talk about why this issue was so important. Here’s the thing: I KNOW that the elected official who is there wouldn’t do a thing to lift up the issue. We all show up at events – that’s good, and to be expected. But showing up at an event and collecting kudos for being present somewhere is a cheap way of scoring points. To quote an expression that President Biden attributes to his Dad, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

This is huge. I’m tired of hearing nice words. Match it with funding, and tell me how you’d get the money to make it happen. Presentations, citations, awareness, it’s not enough. Give me the cold, hard cash to fund the programs necessary to help people.

So, what does this mean for a normal person? Well, simply. First, if someone shows up with a proclamation or a card, that’s great. It’s important. I never want to take away from the action of bringing attention to an important and relevant topic. However, that’s not enough, and don’t let any politician get away with it. Instead of saying thank you and posting for pictures, ask your elected official what they are doing on mental health. What issues are they involved with, specifically? What funding increases are they examining? Are the open for a meeting when you can talk to them more?

Oh, and let me add: This strategy and these comments don’t just apply to mental health and mental illness. They can work across the board on any number of issues.

At the end of the day, awareness is great. For some issues – particularly ones that are under-discussed, they are huge. But it’s not enough. Don’t let any politician tell you that it is.

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