This is the illness we don't talk about – and we should

Did you know there is an awareness calendar? I had no idea until I found it that this is National Walking month, that I've just missed National Eat What You Want Day (bother!), that there is a donut week and a foster care fortnight and an international dawn chorus day. Maybe, like me, part of you thinks all this awareness raising is a bit over the top and not particularly effective anyway.


There are definitely some awareness campaigns done in jest but this week is Mental Health Awareness week – not a laughing matter. And in this case, I think there is a lot to be said for a seven- day focus on what for many, many people is a hidden struggle. These are some of the reasons why I think we need Mental Health Awareness Week.

Mental health issues are hard to talk about

There are lots of reasons why mental health is not often openly discussed. Part of it is down to stigma and shame. Part of it is fear, fear of getting too close to pain, fear of being rejected. Part of it is that words don't even come close to capturing the reality of living with depression, or anxiety, or any of the many other ailments of the mind. An awareness week puts the issue out in the open and gives us opportunity to talk.

Let me make this personal: I have been in and out of depression since I was thirteen. I have had three years of talk therapy and I am on antidepressants for the foreseeable future. I thought I was cured in my mid-twenties but it turns out I wasn't. This month I have been feeling really low. I've been tearful and sluggish and my thoughts have been dark, twisty and harmful. As I've woken in the mornings, my first awareness is of the giant rock sitting on my chest and the tight band around my head. That was hard to tell you.

Talking helps

When the conversation begins, often you realise you are not as alone as you thought. It chips away at the isolation, at the suspicion that no one has ever been as messed up as you are, that you are unreachable.

This week, as I've followed some of what's been written and spoken about, I've felt a sense of solidarity, of comfort and of hope in the goodness and resilience of human nature.

Awareness can lead to compassion

Mental health struggles are a mystery to (the very few) people blessed with lives free from them. That is why they will sometimes say things like, 'Look on the bright side,' 'You need a good kick up the backside!' or 'You're a Christian – you should be joyful.' It is easier to be patient and kind when you have some insight. If you understand depression is not the same as being a bit sad or grumpy, it can help you resist the temptation to jolly the sufferer along for example. Christians can be particularly in need of educating about mental health, because of the tendency to spiritualise a person's inner workings. In the vast majority of cases, sin, demons and disobedience are not the root cause of the illness (as they are not in the case of chicken pox or diabetes).

Mental Health Awareness Week may seem a bit of a gimmick, but I hope you won't write it off. If you are mentaily well, use it as an opportunity to reach out to those in your life who aren't. Ask them what their condition feels like. Ask them what you can do to help. If you are in a bad place, know that you are not alone. And be brave – help raise awareness.

Jo Swinney wrote about her struggles with depression in her first book, 'Through the Dark Woods' (Monarch). Her latest book, 'Home: the quest to belong' (Hodder) is out on June 29. Jo's online home is