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A smile, a word, a question

By Niamh Kelleher

Changing attitudes to mental health starts with one small act by one individual. One small gesture can make a huge difference to someone who is struggling, sow the seeds for a positive climate for change, and foster a community of love and support. So, what will you do?

It’s universally understood that patrons should be quiet in a library. Yet if you look inside the minds of the students inhabiting said space, it is anything but. For instance, think of a girl sitting at the corner desk. She has papers spread sporadically, her leg is bouncing, and she is gnawing her lip. She clenches and unclenches her jaw. Just by looking at her, you can tell she is riddled with anxiety over more than just the assignment due tomorrow.

By contrast, a boy sits on the other side of the library, scrolling through his phone mindlessly. He shouldn’t be, the beckoning pile of work awaits him, and yet mindless scrolling is all his tired, weary being can muster right now.

But it’s not all bad. Imagine a girl tapping her anxious friend on the shoulder, giving a comforting smile, and helping her work through her anxious bubble. Imagine the boy recollecting what his counsellor said to him earlier that day, and forgiving himself for a momentary slump before starting on a small task. If this same scenario was to have happened 20-odd years ago, the response may have been quite different.

The climate surrounding mental health has changed drastically over the past 20 years. From positive discussions amongst friends to increased support and awareness, shifting social attitudes around mental health has not only provided help for more people, but fostered an environment of acceptance, care, and change. 

The words ‘mental health’ have long been followed with uneasy conversations, shuffling in seats and a pregnant silence. Historically, seeking treatment for mental health issues has been a dicey business, with some historical treatments considered ineffective and inhumane by today’s standards and people suffering from mental health conditions were often persecuted, incarcerated, tortured or forgotten.

However, in recent times, treatments have improved, there is more awareness of patient rights and social media has seen what could almost be described as a glamorisation of some mental health issues. Yet societal attitudes towards mental illness are slow to change. Discussion of issues surrounding mental health requires gentle hands, as well as an understanding of the delicacy and complexity that is the human mind.

One catalyst for change in attitudes to caring for our mental health would be, surprisingly, the rise of technology.

Whilst technology is paradoxical in terms of mental health, it is noted as a central health communication tool, with more than 20 billion views of #mentalhealth on TikTok. Allowing people to share their experiences, insight and support to one another, allowing for the stigmatisation of mental health to be reduced due to increased discussion and normalisation. Websites such as Kids Helpline provide strategies on how to develop technology use that is healthy for our minds, they suggest following professional mental health pages, joining groups where you feel safe and supported, as well as encouraging taking a break from the screens.

Moreover, technology can also offer support such as challenges or initiatives, such as the Black Dog Institute’s Bite Back Mental Fitness Challenge, which provides six weekly challenges that help to improve mental fitness and reduce stress.

Cholet Murray, a year 11 student from Sydney, NSW comments on the challenges of speaking up about mental health:

“You’ve got to be a bit more vulnerable with it. You don't really know if you're saying the right thing or if it's acceptable to say”. 

Cholet says the issue gets harder to discuss due to it being an ‘invisible experience’:

“It’s harder to tell when someone’s going through something mentally than physically”.

Yet Cholet remains hopeful for the future. 

Just as the girl comforts her anxious friend in the library. As the boy pauses and smiles to recollect what his counsellor said to him. Contributing to the changing climate of mental health can all start with a small act. A smile. A word. A question.

So, what will you do?


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