Enough Already!  Stop Raising Awareness and Do Something

Enough Already!  Stop Raising Awareness and Do Something

     by Hugh Davis, executive director of Wisconsin FamilyTies

This past week was designated Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, as have all first full weeks in May for more than two decades.  Across the nation, there were articles, proclamations, promotions, and events.  Thousands upon thousands of person-hours were spent in planning for these activities.  Is it worth it?

The “awareness” phenomenon is not unique to mental health:  The US Department of Health and Human Services lists 225 national health observances on its website[1].  Over the past decade, however, more people have come to question the benefit of awareness days.  “Days, weeks, months are dedicated to the awareness of different health conditions, often without a clear definition of what ‘awareness’ means, or what, exactly, is supposed to come of it.”[2]

Some researchers are finding that awareness days are not only ineffective, they may also be harmful.  “If left unchecked, health awareness days may do little more than reinforce ideologies of individual responsibility and the false notion that adverse health outcomes are simply the product of misinformed behaviors.”[3]  People who have experienced mental health challenges concur.  Poet and activist Faith Boersma states that awareness-raising without consciousness-raising is “a cementing of the very systems of oppression that have been dehumanizing those of us with labels of ‘mentally ill’ for centuries.”[4]

Over the past twenty years, Wisconsin Family Ties has helped perpetuate this myth of awareness-raising.  We played the game with politicians, policymakers, and providers.  We planned and participated in events, and we received numerous gubernatorial proclamations declaring Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

No longer.

Despite decades of awareness-raising in our state, Wisconsin still has one of the worst children’s mental health systems in the nation.  Data from SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) Uniform Reporting System indicate that Wisconsin’s children’s mental health system ranks 48th among all states.[5]

If improvement doesn’t follow awareness, then what do we do?  “To move the needle on the issues we care about the most, research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action that will lead a specific group of people to do something they haven’t done before.”[6]

Let’s change the game.

We believe it’s time to reimagine human services.  We envision a children’s mental health system that provides services and supports of sufficient duration and intensity to alter the trajectory of Wisconsin’s most at-risk youth permanently.  We see a system aligned with research on the “social determinants of health”[7] instead of the “medical model,”[8] which has failed to produce promised outcomes.

We want to ensure that we never forget the “human” part of human services.  We want a children’s mental health system built on a deeper understanding of children and families and less judgment, a system that views “relationship” as a primary intervention.

From this day forward, we dedicate ourselves to making this vision a reality.  We will no longer participate in awareness days – just meaningful, focused, intense action to transform our children’s mental health system.

If you’re interested in that same vision for Wisconsin’s children, we invite you to join us.  Drop an email to Joe Oswald, Wisconsin Family Ties’ communications and policy director, at [email protected], and let’s get going.

[1] National Health Observances | health.gov. (2021). US Dept. of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/news/category/national-health-observances

[2] Beck, J. (2015). What good is “raising awareness?” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/what-good-is-raising-awareness/391002/

[3] Purtle, J., & Roman, L. A. (2015). Health awareness days: Sufficient evidence to support the craze? American Journal of Public Health, 105, 1061–1065. https://doi.org/10.2015/ajph.2015.302621

[4] Boersma, F. (2021). Mental Health Awareness Month:  A dissent.  http://www.mhawisconsin.org/faith-boersma

[5] Ranking based on nine indicators; four on service rates to children with SED and five from consumer (i.e., parent) surveys.  SED stands for “serious emotional disturbance” (a phrase the author detests) and is defined as “the presence of a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that results in functional impairment which substantially interferes or limits the child’s role in family, school, or community activities.”  States are required to submit annual data through SAMHSA’s Uniform Reporting System.  Though not perfect, the Uniform Reporting System represents the best data available:  There is no other surveillance system regularly collecting similar data from all states.

[6] Christiano, A., & Niemand, A. (2017). Stop raising awareness already. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/stop_raising_awareness_already

[7] Social determinants of health are the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes.  Research has shown that these social, economic, and environmental factors have roughly twice the influence on overall health outcomes as clinical services.

[8] The medical model is a school of thought that mental illness derives from biological factors rather than a complex set of biological, psychological, social, behavioral, and environmental factors.  The medical model led to the belief that medication is primary intervention for mental health issues.

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