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Do we really still need to raise awareness of mental health?

I might be in the minority here but this has nagged at me for a while now: is it time to stop mental health awareness campaigns? Provocative? Okay, let me explain why it bothers me. I’m acutely aware of my own mental health issues and plenty of friends and people I meet are aware of their problems too – what they don’t know is how to deal with them.

So when I see another big company spending their budget on mental health awareness I find myself getting riled – I’m not sure a handful of mindfulness videos and a mediation app is going to get much cut-through in the day-to-day shift at a packaging warehouse, call centre or city bank. But it’s okay for me to get riled occasionally as I’ve learned techniques to cope with my irritability and anger. But many haven’t. Not through lack of desire or will, but from lack of opportunity, visibility of practical programmes, and accessible counselling and therapy.

I believe that corporations should move on from awareness into more practice and action. I’ll say here that I’m a recovering addict and I needed awareness of my condition to identify with others and accept my problems – but it’s not awareness that keeps me clean and sober, but action. Always action.

I’d like to see some wealthier businesses doing more to help the poorer in the community – in a sustained way, not just a tick-the-box volunteering team away-day or two.

I admit, there are some amazing well-being programmes out there and some do great good. But are they all sustainable? That, to me, is the key. Success stories come from organisations that take well-being seriously and change how they work to accommodate it – to shape a holistically sustainable company. Whatever we do has to have legs and that means giving people the time, tools and techniques to manage their own mental health – and creating environments that don’t exacerbate the issues.

There are some great counselling initiatives starting up too. Some forward-thinking companies are investing in regular mental health checks for their employees – taking preventative action and a compassionate duty of care. At The Counselling Foundation we provide this service in parallel with longer-term counselling.

Let’s go further. Why not integrate mental health modules into a company’s training programme? Take, for example, working late. Is it a cultural phenomenon or an individual’s need for validation or a fear of not being seen to be achieving? If the latter, it could be explored in a module and, who knows, maybe a positive change could be brought about that’s beneficial to the individual and the company’s productivity?

Could some of the larger, global organisations, those with clout and means, change their working practices to eliminate employee stress? I’m talking about genuine end-to-end reengineering of processes, for example, concept to market. All too often we read that a happy workforce is a more productive one, so why can’t that ethos be more prevalent and built into changes? As an aside, there’s an ongoing debate in the USA about a law that suggests corporations are legally obliged to maximise profits. Is that truly a healthy objective? When markets are tight, the primary way to maintain profit is to reduce the cost of production or service and that often means low wages, zero-hour contracts, going beyond working time directives, and squeezing the cost of supplier contracts.

But there’s light. Recently in the UK, the trials on four-day weeks have been a success, driven by 4 Day Week, who claim that 78% of employees with four-day weeks are happier and less stressed. And in progressive countries like Finland, named ‘happiest country in the world’ by the United Nations for five year’s running, they are turning the corner. It’s down to political will and the desire to change. That said, despite it coming down they still have one of the highest suicide rates in the EU, but their awareness is being translated into action. So this suggests a continuous but evolving national – international – strategy to dealing with mental health is the way to go.

There are practical steps that can be taken. Most companies have trained first aiders, so why not add mental health first aiders to the mix? The training is widely available. And the role has the beauty of normalising things and making mental health more acceptable.

Schools have a massive role to play too. There’s currently a petition doing the rounds to get suicide spoken about at schools in a safe and age-appropriate way. It’s calling for suicide prevention to be included in statutory guidelines of the new curriculum. If schools, why not the workplace too?

Back to my opening statement. I’ve changed my mind. Let’s keep mental health awareness campaigns but make them more about real engagement, real change and real action.


Author: Seán Robinson (Screenwriter and Consultant)

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