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Why should we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month?

Mental Health Awareness Month has been celebrated in May since 1949, with the purpose of breaking the stigma of mental health illnesses. By encouraging conversations and empowering those who struggle with mental health, awareness is just what we need amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

 Although it was started in the United States by the Mental Health America organisation, nowadays there are numerous organisations all over the world who are celebrating it and making it their own. Over the past 71 years, the month has become the most widely recognised mental health awareness effort in the world. 

Although started in the United States, there are numerous organisations around the world celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month

This year, the theme for the Mental Health Awareness Month, set by Mental Health America, is #Tools2Thrive. The theme was chosen to “provide practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase resiliency regardless of the situations they are dealing with”. 

Now, in the light of the pandemic, finding the tools to thrive has become more important than ever. With the lockdown affecting the lives of people across the world, many people are struggling to establish healthy routines and find new coping mechanisms. This is doubly true for those who have already struggled with mental health prior to the lockdown, or those who are living under lockdown with a vulnerable person

Previous themes included: #4Mind4Body (2019) which highlighted the importance of looking at mental health holistically, #B4Stag4 (2015) which stressed the need to address mental health struggles early on, and “Do More for 1 in 4” (2011) which was based on the statistic that as many as 1 in 4 Americans have a diagnosable mental health condition. 

Even though the initiative started in the US, that is not to say that the Mental Health Awareness Month is not celebrated in the UK.  The UK-based Mental Health Foundation established Mental Health Awareness Week, which takes place every year from 18-24 May. This year, the theme was “kindness”. In a powerful video introducing the theme, the organisation said that “at times like these when the world feels upside down, kindness can be the key to turning things around”. The goal of the week was to empower and encourage acts of kindness, that are the building blocks to creating “community, support, and hope”.The initiative was embraced by numerous notable personalities in the UK. 

The UK-based Mental Health Foundation established Mental Health Awareness Week which takes place every year from 18-24 May

On the 18 May, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recorded a special radio message in which they encouraged people to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month and to stay connected. They were joined by celebrities such as singer-songwriter Dua Lipa, boxer Anthony Joshua, England Captain Harry Cane, and actor David Tennant. The message was broadcast to 20 million people, and the corresponding YouTube clip had over 35 thousand views. 

Various companies also produced content in celebration of Mental Health Awareness Week. Television network HBO created a short YouTube video that combined clips from well-known movies in which characters are addressing mental health issues. The video has reached around six thousand viewers. Seeing the beloved movie characters dress mental health can be helpful, as it serves as a sign to destigmatize these subjects. 

Also on YouTube, Lele Pons, a social media personality with over 16 million subscribers, launched a YouTube original titled ‘The Secret Life of Lele Pons’. In the series, she reveals for the first time ever her lifelong struggle with OCD and Tourettes. The first episode, released on 19 May this year, already has over 4 million views and was no.2 on YouTube trending. Seeing someone in the spotlight sharing their struggles with mental health can create greater awareness and encourage people to open up about their own struggles. However, some say that celebrities and companies posting such messages can be doing more harm than good. Some find that their efforts to promote Mental Health Awareness Month as an opportunity to gain publicity and promote their products. 

Seeing someone in the spotlight talk about their personal struggles with mental health helps spread awareness and encourages people to open up about their experiences

It is important for these messages to be in line with the Mental Health Foundation’s standards of how to talk about these issues in a relevant manner. 

It is crucial to show the complexity of dealing with mental health struggles. Messages like “spread kindness” or “be connected” can be easy to spread, but can also oversimplify the issue. After all, mental health is something that is complex and deeply individual. The Mental Health Awareness Month should continue to encourage conversations about this topic that remains a taboo, and should be viewed as a starting point for taking better care of mental health. 

Throughout the year, many other mental health events are taking place around the world. These events focus more on specific aspects of mental health. For example, in February there is a National Eating Disorders Week (16-23 Feb), in March a Self-Harm Awareness Month, and in September a National Suicide Prevention Month. These events keep the conversation about mental health going all year round. The Mental Health Awareness Month, although the most talked-about, should not be the only time we are thinking of our mental health. Rather, it is a symbol to recognize the importance of growing awareness, and truly make use of the resources available. 

Ultimately, even with initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Month taking care of mental health remains a worldwide struggle. This holds true for everyone, not just for those who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. There are several resources available for those who are struggling with their mental health, such as Mental Health America, National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI), and Mental Health Foundation

While Mental Health Awareness Month happens once a year, we can make it our own.  As students, we can often feel like our grades and achievements are the ultimate metric of success. What Mental Health Awareness Month has shown is that taking good care of our mental health is also an achievement, and something that we need to celebrate.

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