Why NSUN doesn’t do World Mental Health Day

This piece was written in 2021 by NSUN’s former CEO, Akiko Hart.

On Sunday, it will be World Mental Health Day. Again.

NSUN is a mental health charity, but on World Mental Health Day, or #WorldMentalHealthDay, we’ll be quiet.

It doesn’t speak to us, or to many of our members.

World Mental Health Day is about awareness raising. But of what, and to what end?

World Mental Health Day is a global awareness campaign whose theme is set by the World Federation for Mental Health. This year’s theme is “mental health in an unequal world”, a surprisingly political choice.

But NSUN members are more than aware of mental ill health, distress or trauma: they live with it every day. NSUN members don’t need to be told that mental health is important. Nor do they need to be told it’s good to talk (it’s not, always); that there is always help available (false); that we are not alone (actually, we often are). In fact, it’s way past time to talk: it’s time to scream.

In the UK, anti-stigma awareness raising campaigns such as Time to Change or Heads Together have done their job. More people seem aware that mental health is a thing, and a thing to be taken seriously. We’ve seen a real generational shift in how mental health is talked about in the UK, and that is partly down to these campaigns. Are there still some people who are not aware? Yes, of course. Maybe World Mental Health Day is for them, but somehow, I’m not so sure.

So, who is World Mental Health Day for?

On the face of it, World Mental Health Day is aimed at people for whom thinking and talking about mental health is a newer or more tangential part of their lives. Clearly, it brings a lot of people joy and connection. But the fact that it’s a one-off day which aims to bring people together to talk about mental health is also why it doesn’t land with people who live with this stuff day in and day out and who don’t get a holiday from themselves. It doesn’t feel new or energising to them, and most of the content or conversations being generated isn’t aimed at them.

A lot of the space #WorldMentalHealthDay occupies is actually in the corporate sphere. The hashtag is deployed by organisations as a signalling tool, to show that they too care about mental health. But if organisations are serious about tackling stress and burnout in the workplace, or supporting employees who live with mental ill health, then retweeting a message about how mental health matters or how it’s good to talk probably isn’t going to do it. It’s likely to be more about the structures you have in place, resourcing, ongoing support, the culture you build and how you treat people. How many people in corporates are adding “say something about #WMHD on my LinkedIn” to their ever-expanding to-do list?

The truth is that World Mental Health Day is good for business, if you are in the business of mental health. It’s a hook for your campaign or your new product. It’s a convenient way of launching a new partnership. It’s a way of showing your stakeholders and donors and partners that you are “starting a conversation”. Which is fine. Mental health is a big ecosystem, and different parts of it will speak to different people.

#WorldMentalHealthDay is in fact a bit of an industry. It generates actual jobs, it triggers endless meetings and frenetic activity. And, crucially, it raises money.

I’m interested in how much of the money raised on #WorldMentalHealthDay goes towards say, actual service delivery, or your local mutual aid group. I wonder if in fact the bulk of the funding is funnelled back into these campaigns to raise more awareness of mental health so they can invest in a bigger campaign next year to raise more awareness. And if that’s where you want your money to go, then great. But this is the crux of the issue.

World Mental Health Day and similar initiatives are not just harmless campaigns with some beneficial by-products. By their nature they simplify complex issues, and privilege clean and easy messages over difficult ones. They take up space and suck up oxygen. They pull resources and funding and attention towards some parts of mental health and away from others.

People, organisations and governments have limited attention spans. I don’t expect everyone to care about mental health, but it makes my job harder when I am constantly untangling received wisdom about mental health from these campaigns.

To put it bluntly, World Mental Health Day diverts attention and resource away from many of the issues that NSUN members care about, and makes it slightly harder for us to make the case for them.

When people who think and talk about mental health every day are muting #WorldMentalHealthDay, we need to pause and reassess who the day is really serving.