Why we dread Mental Health Awareness Week every year
Bloody hell it’s Mental Health Awareness week again, everybody quick hide!!!!!
Camerados is a movement for people with tough times looking out for each other and a lot of these people, inevitably, have some sort of issue with their mental health. Many don’t but some do. Yet every year when this week comes round we stand in the corner of the party with a lampshade on our head and pretend nobody notices us.
Wait. Why are we hiding? Surely it’s because of things like MH Week and the fine people who have campaigned for years on the subject that physical health and mental health have some sort of parity in many quarters of the health system and that is a massively positive change of affairs? Yes. Absolutely. Turn the clock back even just ten years and NOBODY was opening up about mental health.
So why are all the camerados now sneaking upstairs to lock themselves in the bathroom hoping nobody at the party notices?
Well look…it’s precisely because we have a towering respect for mental health campaigners that we don’t want to piss them off by having a problem with their campaign. Nobody likes a naysayer when you agree with the overall mission. So in Camerados we’d really just rather the week passed by and nobody noticed that we didn’t contribute. A little bit like when you “bring a bottle” to a party except you forgot so you just pretend that you did and drink everyone else’s booze.
Wait. That’s really bad. That’s exactly what we do if we don’t contribute this week. Damn. We all benefit from the new ground that’s been broken, the open attitudes on mental health so the least we can do is contribute — stop hiding and bring a bottle. Sheesh.
Well Ok then. We’re sorry for not joining the fight before. We’re unlocking the bathroom door and joining in but we’re gonna be honest with our contribution to the party and so we’re bringing 4 of our own homemade bottles from the Association of Camerados and you don’t have to drink them. The first bottle says this on the label…
STOP SAYING MENTAL
When I grew up in Carlisle in the 1970s being called “mental” was not a good thing.
I have worked for 25 years in the social justice sector and I still can’t call my own mental health struggle anything other than “the black dogs” or “feeling bonkers”. There are millions of other people not engaged with these issues who are queueing up behind you at Greggs for a Steak Bake or sitting opposite you on the tube and they are having a raging war inside their mind yet are NEVER going to walk in anywhere that says “mental health” on the door. You might say that’s because of the stigma we are all trying to overcome, but are you really so married to the language that you want that fight? Just call it something else and get them to come in the door.
We had a Public Living Room in a big NHS hospital and the chalkboard sign outside said “Come in, relax, look out for each other”. Our invisible infra-red counter on the door showed approximately 1000 people per week were visiting it. One week the management in the hospital changed our sign to say “It’s time to talk — #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek”. When we checked the counter the numbers visiting fell to 40 for that week.
When “mental health” was mentioned numbers fell by 96%
So how do we talk about mental health without talking about “mental health”?
I think we can talk about it all when we’re “back of house” in meetings but when we are running services, clinics and so on and we are dealing “front of house” with people going through a hard time maybe let’s talk about something else. I never forget the moment I finally took steps to address my own rampant self harming and mental health problems, it was when a very old friend of mine said “Look Maff you’ve just pulled a muscle in your brain”. That was the first thing that made sense to me. The repressed, northern, machismo dickhead inside me allowed myself to accept this. There are a lot of us about. So let’s do what works and drop the language that turns people off.
PLAY MORE CONNECT 4
When Camerados ran a public living room in Camden Town it was intense, thousands of people passing the door each hour. There was a large cohort of people who came in and joined us and we called them “The wanderers”. These are people who just seem to wander the streets all day with nowhere particular to go and nowhere to sit. No money for a cafe, no job to occupy them, no desire to be at home.
Most of them were between appointments. People with a whole range of life challenges which took them to a mental health drop in, their housing provider, the job centre, their doctor, their support worker, social worker the list goes on and on. The Wanderers are just filing time between the cracks of their day. There’s a lot of big, wide cracks.
Right beside our Public Living Room was the Mental Health drop-in centre. We met lots of people who were visiting it. If your life consists of short appointments what do you do the rest of the time? One half hour appointment about deeply challenging issues then leaves you with 23 and a half hours of that day to walk around with nothing to do but worry before or after that appointment. There was a little fella who looked like Mackenzie Crook of The Detectorists, dressed in a cagoule and jogging pants with a strangely expressionless face and he said to us
“I was wandering up this street looking for somewhere to kill myself today, but then I came in here and played Connect 4 with people, had a cuppa and a few custard creams. It was nice. Don’t think I’m gonna go through with it today”
When people say massive things like that every part of your rational brain expels any notion that it can be true. It’s too immense to take in, surely he must be making it up? But no, Connect 4 made a difference that day.
Last week a camerado we know went into hospital feeling suicidal and cutting himself with a scalpel he used for modelling. The hospital discharged him in a taxi with no support, having made him feel like a “silly billy” when they bandaged him up. They’re very busy and dealing with a heck of a lot, now more than ever, so it’s hard to lambast them for their impatience. But it’s still horrific when you think about it. He said that the only people in the hospital who helped in any way were the nurses whose wisecracks as they passed by his bed kept him smiling and a care assistant who sat on his bed and talked to him about the book he was reading.
A bit of company from someone who is not in your face, not trying to fix you, but just accepts you, acknowledges your tough time and maybe even asks you to help them - play this game with me, tell me about that book - this is the support that is always missing. It gives you the reserves to carry you through those 23 and a half empty, worrying hours. If you have somewhere to go - like a Public Living Room - it can be a way to spend those hours too.
It’s also a more sustainable solution than putting the weight of a solution on services. If we look out for each other then we can all be a part of each other’s mental health support outside of those appointments. And we don’t get paid, we’re just humans, camerados, people who give a damn…and the best bit? It feels good doing it, we all benefit. A no brainer, win win…so why don’t more services promote this kind of mutual aid? If yours does then hats off to you.
DO THE HOKEY COKEY
Top down services run by organisations with big hierarchical structures don’t find it easy to play Connect 4. I’d love to see the Mental Health Strategy that says “Point 4.2.1 Create a budget line for custard creams”.
The other issue with mental health services is they don’t always do very well with the hokey cokey. I don’t know about you but my mental health is a bit like “put the left leg in, left leg out, shake it all about”. Sometimes I make great strides, sometimes I fall way back again. Then things improve and it’s looking good, then I have a really bad day, then it’s fine again, then it’s not…blimey, it’s a bit exhausting. I’m feeling like I’m boring you just by writing this, imagine living it!
Mental health doesn’t fit with a nicely mapped out care journey of diagnosis — treatment — cure. Inevitably if you’re paid to deliver a service you want a successful outcome — a mental health free patient. Yet mental health doesn’t work like that. How damaging is it to put that expectation on someone when they suffer a setback? They feel like a failure.
Mental health is a lifelong thing we all live with, full of exhausting ups and down and most of us are just trying to avoid the mega downs where possible. It doesn’t fit a neat 3 act structure and no magic wand is going to solve it forever. I hope that some of you do manage to keep the black dogs away for as long as possible in your life but I’ve certainly long given up trying to lock them up in a kennel forever. My setbacks don’t define me, they don’t tell me it’s all GAME OVER and you should all worry terribly about me. It’s just really shit but it’ll pass at some point and I’ll get my mojo back. I have to believe this and history has shown that’s how it goes.
In Camerados we have a principle — and we’ve even put it on a badge — that it’s OK to be a bit shit sometimes. Knowing that and just being with other people in the shit doesn’t solve it all, but it makes it less catastrophic and less life threatening. Which leads us on to the next bottle we’re bringing to this party…
HAVE FUN, IT’S A SERIOUS BUSINESS
Sometimes when people are looking out for each, on a sofa, playing Connect 4, over a cuppa, miracles can in fact happen. Like the Mackenzie Crook fella it can rewire the brain, disrupt the downward spiral and start a new story which lifts you out of your hole. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you still feel rough and are still in that hole. Yet if we’re alongside each other at least we’re not alone in the hole. It’s a bit nicer, and there’s custard creams. Is that such a bad thing?
Having fun, having a laugh with others, is never given the credit it deserves. Why isn’t it central to all services dealing with people with mental health. No more glass screens, waiting rooms with plastic chairs and forms to fill in. More fairy lights and sofas please. Fun is something you almost always do with other people and it gives you a bit of purpose. In Camerados we believe that People and Purpose are the most vital things we need to get through tough times. They give life meaning. So why aren’t we all having more fun? Probably because it’s not seen as having any serious place in serious treatment by serious people. I don’t know about you but there’s nothing more serious than the meaning of life.
S o there they are. There’s our 4 bottles we’re putting on the HouseParty table for Mental Health Week. Camerados has been too scared for too long that people will see us as a Mental Health movement if we join the debate so we want to apologise to our friends in the MH world for hiding each year.
To make it up to you, and talking of a House party, we are inviting you to one on Friday 14th of May. This is how our Movement is gonna celebrate #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek we’re hosting one of our now legendary House Parties. Come along and look out for others going through tough times by boogieing in your own home, on a zoom call, with great DJs and having a ball. There’s also rooms you can wander into with performance poetry, salsa dancing and a chill out room.
You can even do the hokey cokey and bring along your Connect 4 if you like. Because in Mental Health Awareness week EVERYBODY is included, even the one in the corner in the blanket and under the lampshade. No more hiding, come and join in and bring a bottle!
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Maff Potts is founder of the Camerados movement and a Director of the Association of Camerados, the small team that supports the movement — www.camerados.org.