the awareness illusion

What a better time to start posting again on the only sound than the month of May, Mental Health Awareness Month. May, the month when the United States can collectively recognize through the means of posting, sharing, retweeting and regurgitating on social media the importance of maintaining the hygiene of one’s brain. May, the month when we forget about stigma and applaud at how far we’ve come.

Those who read the only sound at its start last year know I’m being sarcastic. However, some of you are new visitors after reading my opinion piece in the The Philadelphia Inquirer about prioritizing those with mental health and substance misuse conditions in the early phases of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. What I’ve said before is we are not as far as we think we are when it comes to normalizing mental health discourse, and what I’m saying now is that the mainstream forms of mental health awareness are illusory, distracting, and may do more harm than good.

Since we met in January, I made a conscious decision to investigate myself – inwardly and outwardly – as someone who cares about mental health and contributes to the conversation. I interrogated my feelings and actions in order to find what I truly needed to take care of my mental wellbeing. There were days this past winter where I felt like I was driving through a snowstorm that was a culmination of depressive and anxious thoughts. I wasn’t sure if I was going anywhere, let alone going anywhere safely. My mental state wasn’t pretty, and I had to admit that to myself and others in order to communicate my needs. I write this in the spring saying that it took being brutally honest with myself about my lowest points and following it up with acts of compassion.  I metaphorically pulled over; I recognized what I was feeling, called off plans knowing I was in panic, took walks, washed my hair, didn’t wash my hair, flirted with the idea of getting back on medication. Through this honesty, both myself and others showed up, more comfortable and understanding with the reality of mental illness than ever before.

The willingness to be upfront and deal with all the messy parts of my mental distress – whether that was with the help of others or by myself – was the truest form of mental health advocacy I’ve come to witness in my own journey. Yet, my media consumption gives me a different picture of mental health advocacy and awareness. To let others’ know you give a damn about mental health in 2021 you have to Instagram, retweet, share and regurgitate on social media about it. One has the ability to share an aesthetically pleasing infographic about Mental Health Awareness month with a caption, “Take care of your mental health!” and be under the impression that they checked off their mental health advocacy box. Sanitize, rinse, retweet.

The new popular cultural approach to thinking we’re normalizing mental health discourse has become a performance of illusion. Whether we truly believe we’re doing the right thing by expressing our commitment to mental health justice online to our followers, it’s still an act to be performed for others, defrauding ourselves and the audience into believing we’re doing the work of mental health advocacy. It all means nothing if we’re not living it offline. 

I seemingly change my mind on this often, but lately I’ve been increasingly convinced that all awareness is necessarily not helpful despite the wholesome, nonthreatening, and best of intentions the source may have. There’s this theory in microeconomics of the law of diminishing returns that states when an additional input of production is applied, it will inevitably lead to decreases in output over time. There’s a point where more is confused with better and loss sets in.

I fear that most of society has hit the point of diminishing returns for mental health awareness. The onslaught of posts and packages that dip the toes in the waters in mental health are an illusion, having us believe that this is what going forward looks like. Performative media has distracted us and substituted actual work, and that’s the point where the line on the graph goes down.

source: platformatec.

I’m not here to police awareness, but I am here to police perception. Based on my own subjective experience, the path forward must come from honesty and being representative of what’s happening in our heads in the entire range of mental health experiences. Active advocacy in your personal life looks being understanding when your friend bails because they can’t get out of bed.  Awareness is realizing that our systems keep us mental ill – the expense of therapy, our capitalistic working culture, the shit hand millennials have been dealt – and working on ways we can dismantle those systems in order to keep ourselves and others above ground. 

When I get overwhelmed by how to advocate for my own mental health, I have to be reminded of the purpose of music and art, which are inherently expressions of human experience. Music can be nothing but a display of raw emotional honesty. While there certainly is a spectrum of mirroring the artist’s ups and downs in music, the band Say Anything has existed on the extreme end of the blunt vulnerability spectrum in their lyrics. (“There’s a man assigned to me / And he checks on my stability / We discuss you every week”). Bands like Say Anything and acknowledging the purpose of music are simple and humbling reminders of what a little sincerity and vulnerability can do for change.

I don’t blame anyone for what mental health awareness has become. It’s so much more emotionally and systemically easier to tweet about the importance of going to therapy than to take a mental health day for yourself. Posting about awareness doesn’t have to cease and only dropping hotlines doesn’t have to end as long as you’re aware of when you are internalizing stigma, getting honest about your own and others’ mental health, and acting compassionately in response offline. As we’ve been shown through the trauma of the past fourteen months, music doesn’t need a performance.

This post’s playlist can be found here. Follow me on Spotify. Find me on Twitter, and follow the only sound while you’re on the bird app.


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