On my daily soft sand run on Bondi Beach last week I was privy to a large group of people dressed in fluoro outfits holding hands to raise awareness for mental health. There was a sign that read "awareness for mental health. " This event took place at 6.30am, I imagine this was so people would have time to rush home and make the dash to join the traffic queue in car or bus on the way to work.
This is by no means a one-off event, in fact, there seems to be an event raising awareness for mental health every single week, and there are no shortage of organisations dedicated to the topic either. I'm all for awareness, but when does the time come when awareness moves to the next stage, the stage where we actually make change? It was great to see all the people down by Bondi Beach, but does the energy of such an event give long-lasting results? One may suggest that the positivity for attendees would maybe last until 11am, when agendas, stress and worries make it just another distant memory, and then what? I'm aware it's bad, but what do I do? I was happy surrounded by hundreds of people, I was inspired, but now I'm by myself and I don't feel that good again.
We are aware of the Black Dog, R U OK? Slogans like "How's your headspace" and "Just reach out." We have seen World Mental Health Day, Mental Health Month, Mental Health Week. We've worn the Beyond Blue wristband. We are aware and the stigma of mental health is well and truly eroding. We've ticked the awareness box. But what next?
I'm by no means begrudging the organisers and attendees from the awareness event, but at this time is it merely a band-aid? Don't get me wrong it is a nice band-aid. It is stopping the bleeding, but the gash is still there, and it’s deep. The attendees might be filled with a moment of optimism, but is that enough to stop the damning statistics that are engulfing the modern western world? It's a fantastic thing that we're putting mental health in focus, but there's barely any follow through.
Just look at the statistics and you tell me if awareness campaign after awareness campaign is doing its job. Any good marketer, and even the bad ones, will tell you that there is no point raising awareness for a brand if the people don't know how to use it. We know mental health is a big issue, but do we know, as individuals, what to do about it? The statistics are overwhelming and downright unbelievable.
- One in five Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year.
- Australian youth (18-24 years old) have the highest prevalence of mental illness than any other age group - over one in four will experience a mental illness every year.
- Every day, at least six Australians die from suicide
- Thirty people will attempt to take their own life every single day
- Over 60,000 people a year attempt to take their own lives, the majority being women
- Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24.
- Depression has the third highest burden of all diseases in Australia and also third globally
- The World Health Organisation estimates that depression will be the number one health concern in both the developed and developing nations by 2030
- Three in four adult mental health conditions emerge by age 24 and half by just age 14
- A quarter of young Australians say they are unhappy with their lives
These statistics are scary, but they aren't secrets. Most organisations show them front and centre and these wouldn't be too foreign to most Australians. But still we hold hands on Bondi Beach and still we wear the wristbands, all whilst continuing to do the same things we have always done. We rush off afterwards to the same job, carrying the same stresses, the same responsibilities and then wonder why we see such damning statistics.
Australians are more likely to die by suicide than skin cancer. Crazy right? But as 5 year olds in schools across the country we don't just know the dangers of the sun, we know how to prevent skin cancer, we know how to "slip, slop, slap," we know how to cover up, we have the tools to control it. Do these same kids know how to breathe, meditate, control the thoughts, feelings, and ideas in their heads? Do they know how to manage anger and sadness? Do they know how to talk openly and share their feelings? Have they heard of mindfulness? Do they learn the tools of creating their own happiness in every moment? No, they don't. They are already inundated with homework; they are already being graded and tested; they are competing. Are they just learning the exact tools to be unhappy because that’s what we were taught? And, look at the results- a modern world of chronic unhappiness, where people as young as 14 year are emerging with mental health conditions.
Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents. We are taught to drive and have to pass a plethora of tests to be able to do so. We are managed through several stages. We receive dedicated lessons throughout our schooling, and we are fully prepared. But, are we prepared for our happiness? We are good drivers that don't die on the road, we leave that for later.
We need to be taught the tools to be happy from a very young age. From the age of 5 in kindergartens all over the western world we need to teach our children how to be happy. We can't afford to wait and then just tell them at 30 years old to call a hotline or hold hands at the beach. Awareness campaigns are great, they really are, and if I offended anyone it was certainly not my intention. It is my intention to make real, genuine change and that starts with not reactive approaches but dedicated pro-active ones. Awareness-oriented projects will only ever be short-term fixes, we need to invest in evidence-based practice and long-term health care programs.
Two of the most common forms of mental health issues affecting Australians are depression and anxiety, but we are never really taught how to deal with them even after we are affected. We take medication but never actually change our lifestyles. If we were taught as 5 year olds with short 2 minute meditation and yoga sessions in class then we wouldn't have to result to medication to deal with our problems.
The question is, are awareness campaigns enough to turn the tide against society’s mental health problems? The proof is in the pudding - they are not! Awareness has never been stronger, programs and organisations have never been more dedicated to its focus, but still we see no great change. In many ways these non-stop, in your face promotions have desensitized us to mental health issues and as a result it has become a mainstream, every day thing, and this is dangerous.
Sean Miller, founder of Thrive Mental Health said, "Being aware of someone’s plight is not enough to resolve it. Even knowing the solution is useless unless it is acted upon. If we are going to bring positive and lasting change to the lives of those living with mental illness, I believe we need more than an in depth understanding of their situation-we need to learn about and act in ways to improve it."
We desperately need to move from a passive, reactive approach to a pro-active, action-based approach, where we teach and learn the tools to be happier from birth. One councillor to speak to in schools? How about 25 teachers skilled in the art of mindfulness, or at least one dedicated mindfulness teacher once a week. Our happiness starts and ends with you, let’s create a society where we don't need to depend on external sources for our health and happiness, let's build that foundation from a very early age.
I'm sorry if I've stepped on toes and offended anyone, but look at the statistics and it is clear that something bigger, or at least smarter, needs to be done, right away. If we wait until tomorrow, that's six people dead, and another thirty trying to be.
By Evan Sutter