Have mental health awareness campaigns had their day?

To campaign or not to campaign? Is that the question? When I first started out in my mental health career, campaigns were rare. If I'm honest it felt more like activism in those early days, a sense that we were fighting to get mental health acknowledged.

Have mental health campaigns had their day? asks Sarah Hughes
Have mental health campaigns had their day? asks Sarah Hughes

We are in a new era, and mental health is no longer the silent sister in health policy.

Phrases like #ItsOkNotToBeOk and #timetotalk are in our national consciousness. Campaigns have contributed to this tipping point – but of course they have not, on their own, brought about the changes we’ve seen over the past decade.

I think the shift has come from those with lived experience of mental health difficulty having the courage to break the chains of shame and exclusion, sharing their stories in the relentless pursuit of equality. I think it’s the staff who have been working tirelessly every day to provide services, who undertake research and who have been lobbying government and decision-makers for decades.

There is no doubt the campaigns have impact; I feel it, I see it. We are in a time of investment into health services, with the most ambitious pledges seen in 30 years since the closure of psychiatric institutions within the NHS, and I believe they will be achieved. 

This year’s #WMHD was focused on suicide prevention, as it should be. Most people who die by suicide are not receiving mental health treatment, and campaigns that dispel the myths continue to be vital for that reason.

Campaigns that give people the skills to know what to do are even better. What we want to see next is an impact on the numbers of people dying: this has to be the ultimate goal and I know that there are many people out there campaigning and lobbying every day for a cross-government action plan. 

So, what am I saying? I’m saying that the campaigns have been so important: they have created a new sense of solidarity, got people being more honest, forced change within workplaces, brought mental health out of the shadows. They have been the public hooks and levers. They have helped us make an offer to those in power that they couldn’t refuse – ‘put mental health on your list or else we shall set the nation on you'.

The challenge for us now is to equip the nation with the other stuff; the reality about the causes of mental health, the social, biological and political factors.

We must talk about the things that matter to those who experience mental illness every day, and get the nation fighting poverty and exclusion. We need support to get these issues over the line. We want the government to develop policies that create the conditions for healthy families and communities.

And before you ask, no, I don’t have the swanky campaign moniker for this. Help us think about it – what does the nation need to hear next?

Sarah Hughes is the chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health @_Sarah_Hughes_

A longer version of this piece first appeared on the Centre for Mental Health's website

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