Yet another World Mental Health Day (WMHD) passed by this October 10, yet another flurry of social media invites, seminars (sorry, webinars), people competing with each other in an attempt to spread fast awareness, media turning its attention towards the human psyche for a change and a global bonanza for a single-day take of mental health and wellbeing. And not to mention, this year, the WMHD celebrations successfully aligned with our other festivities like Navratri and Durga Puja as well.
The transition from virtual to hybrid has been smooth and as Covid fades from our memories, get-togethers for mental health day will surely carve a big smile on all our faces. All of a sudden, it’s a changed world; this month, everyone will eat, drink, sleep and speak ‘mental health’. Not to mention, every single medical association and medical college will be flooded with posters, photography, short film contests, and whatnot. And lastly, the awareness runs! Every time it reminds me of the classical comeback from my all-time favourite, Forrest Gump: “Are you running for world peace?”, to which Gump bluntly replies, “No, I just felt like running”.
Well, isn’t this as a community what we always wanted? Mental health for all, by all? Yet, under all this overwhelming extravaganza surrounding mental health centred around this annual festivity, there is an ominous darkness looming. We have too many “days” in a year. Is this just another such day?
World Mental Health Day, on October 10, is an international day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. It was first celebrated in 1992 at the initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH), a global organisation with members and contacts in more than 150 countries. Until 1994, the day had no specific theme other than promoting mental health advocacy and educating the public. In 1994, it was celebrated with a theme for the first time at the suggestion of the then Secretary General Eugene Brody. The theme was “Improving the Quality of Mental Health Services throughout the World”.
It is also supported by the WHO through raising awareness on mental health issues using its strong relationships with the ministries of health and civil society organisations across the globe. The day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work and what more needs to be done to make mental healthcare a reality for people worldwide.
This year’s theme was “Mental health in an unequal world”. We are expected to spread this message far and wide. But where is the missing link? One of my senior teachers in medical school once told me, “Ask anyone about mental health, what they understand is the disorder, but not mental well-being.”
While knowledge actually helps change our attitudes towards mental health and enables us to communicate better, where are we disseminating it? This festival that we celebrate for a day, week or month definitely adds length to our CVs and the public engages in them with fun and frolic just like the preceding Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, Eid or Christmas. And, with the short-term memory that we cherish, as soon as the mental health day or month ends, the field of psychiatry, individuals living with mental illness and people treating them get overshadowed by the thick cloud of stigma, misconceptions, misinformation and prejudice that are all-pervasive in our society. Once again, we sensationalise suicides, isolate people with psychiatric illnesses, label psychiatrists as shrinks and display mental health as a distorted, Kafkaesque entity in books and movies. And why not? In this world of globalisation, mental health indeed sells well, so corporate use of it is rampant while the masses who really need help stay marginalised and without dignity.
Am I against a day? Of course not! I just have concerns with the process. Awareness days throughout the year are observed by global health agencies for a reason, to have a context for what we preach. This context is lost in all the cacophony and glamourisation of the event.
Amidst all the buzz, where are the voices of those who live with mental illness, who are socially impoverished, who are in need for mental healthcare, the physicians who work in remote areas for patient education, the families and caregivers of people who have been suffering from severe mental disorders from years, the vulnerable sectors of population (children, older people, sexual and ethnic minorities, etc.) and the young people from schools/colleges who need to be sensitised to the importance of mental wellbeing right from the early years? These voices are unheard and invisible.
Why do we need a celebrity or a prominent public figure to spell out the importance of mental health for us? Why do we need social media outrage to realise that our mind is as important as our body?
Empathy, compassion, togetherness, humanity, modesty and ethics are concepts that are intricately linked to our self-esteem and emotional health. Unfortunately, these cannot be dealt with through webinars, conferences, runs, posters, photography, etc. Charity begins at home, and it’s high time we turn back to our conscience to ask if we are concerned about mental health or are more obsessed with the ‘day’.
If we really believe in the global vision by the WHO and WFMH, let us help foster equality in mental healthcare in our community by lending a conscious hand all throughout, transcending beyond a day and beyond these plethora of celebrations.
Dr Debanjan Banerjee
Consultant old-age psychiatrist, Kolkata