Belfast Telegraph

Lecturing the public into feeling better about itself via meaningless sloganeering so patronising

No one doubts the need for a joined-up strategy to improve mental wellbeing, but is a lavish advertising campaign the best use of scarce resources, asks Fionola Meredith

Miserable? Lonely? Plagued by nameless fears? Don't worry about it. Simply take the following five steps to better mental wellbeing: "Give. Be active. Connect. Keep learning. Take notice." There you go, you're all sorted. From now on your life will be one sweet walk of inner serenity. You're welcome.

But don't thank me - I can't claim the credit. It's all down to the Belfast Strategic Partnership and its Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing Thematic Group, otherwise known by the catchy acronym MHEWTG, which is, by coincidence, exactly the sound that I make when woken up at about 2am by an especially nasty bout of existential angst.

MHEWTG are the people responsible for the billboards and bus shelter adverts currently displayed all over the city urging us to take those all-important five steps.

I'm sure you've seen the ads. They offer a little more detail on what we are supposed to do. Under "give", for instance, there is a cute picture of hands clasping a heart and the instruction to "volunteer your time. Thank someone. Smile". They would also like us to "connect" with the people around us, such as our friends or colleagues.

In what possible world could catching a glimpse of an advert telling you to "smile" or "try something new" improve somebody's personal wellbeing?

The advice is so vague as to be meaningless - what does it actually mean to "connect" with other people? Talk to them? And the tone is deeply patronising.

If you're actually suffering from clinical depression or any other serious psychological issue, then being brightly urged to "thank someone" is not only pointless, it's borderline offensive.

I'm not saying there isn't a big problem out there. I think we're all agreed that mental health provision in Northern Ireland is grossly inadequate to deal with a population who were - to varying degrees - impoverished, disenfranchised and damaged by the Troubles.

But spending thousands of rate-payers' cash - because I'm assuming it's us, the citizens, who are coughing up for this extensive ad campaign - especially in such economically straitened times is definitely not the answer.

You can't lecture people into feeling better about themselves, certainly not by issuing two-word instructions from a billboard.

It's a bit like those public health ads that tell you to not to eat food after the sell-by date or whatever, which are equally infantilising, though sorting out your troubled mind is slightly more difficult than working out whether or not to eat a piece of mouldy cheese.

I had a look at the MHEWTG's website to find out if it was doing anything else apart from paying for expensive sloganeering. To be fair, it does seem to be organising some community events like hip-hop sessions for kids or tea dances for pensioners ("be active!") and painting classes ("keep learning!").

But how about taking all the money they spend on the ads and donating it to one of the local charities which do such great work for people in mental crisis? That at least has the possibility of making an actual difference to individual lives as opposed to the zero chance that the ad campaign offers.

Such well-meaning but useless initiatives are not uncommon. For instance, a prominent British organisation called the Self Esteem Team, who describe themselves as "The Charlie's Angels of Mental Health", offer their followers insights such as "turn your can'ts into cans and your dreams into plans" and "spilling a beer is like the adult version of letting go of a balloon". Really? You know, I feel so much better about myself already.

Often the advice is vaguely Buddhist-sounding, because it has now been officially decided that mindfulness is A Good Thing. And it is, for some people, though not quite the cheap, easy solution to all your troubles that some of its more enthusiastic adherents would have you believe.

Even then, learning to be mindful is a process, sometimes a lifelong one. It won't magically happen because you saw a sign saying "take notice" at the bus stop.

We cannot move for experts (of both the self-appointed and the Government-funded variety) offering trite, unsolicited advice on how we should be running our inner lives. Did you ask for any of this? I know I didn't.

I agree with the MHEWTG about one thing. Emotional resilience - the ability to change, adapt and cope - is something for us all to aspire to. But you don't reach that enlightened personal state through the medium of mass advertising.

Belfast Telegraph


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