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Why #Stepforward Might Be a Step Backward For Mental Health

Jess McAllen says that the #stepforward campaign to end mental health discrimination, while well-intentioned, doesn’t seem likely to actually achieve anything.

It’s hard to knock an attempt to open up conversation around destigmatising mental illness. But, as a long-term user of mental health services, #stepforwardnz has been bothering me since it launched in June.

I have a lot of time for the  Mental Health Foundation, who are involved with this campaign, and think the work they do is incredibly valuable. However, just because I love them 90% of the time doesn’t mean I can let something that sits uneasy with me slide. Especially given that at least ten other people I’ve talked to with mental health issues have raised concerns with me in private.

Stoppress.co.nz interviewed Jane Wardlaw the group account director of the campaign’s ad agency FDC, who says writing #stepforward on your hand is the third step of the campaign.

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“She says in the current variation phase one was convincing the nation there’s a problem, phase two was to re-evaluate and enable, showing video in relevant environments and getting people to step forward, and the last phase is curtailing the movement, broadcasting content on TV using influencers and getting others to ‘Step Forward’ as well.”

According to Katherine Ryan from the Mental Health Foundation, the campaign, run by the Ministry of Health’s ‘Like Minds Like Mine’ programme, is set to run for three years. Ryan says #stepforward: “aims to encourage people to reflect on and change their behaviour towards people with experience of mental illness. Step Forward is the call to action for people to ‘step forward to end mental illness discrimination’ by taking action to ensure New Zealand is an inclusive society.”

But precisely what action that entails hasn’t been made clear.

So, like any person terrified of putting the fact they have mental health issues on the internet for future employers to see, I composed a listicle explaining why the $1.5 million Government-funded campaign seems unlikely to make much of a difference.

  1. It’s vague. Writing #stepforward on your hand isn’t exactly illuminating. Step forward for who? Why – and where to? The website doesn’t say what kind of mental health discrimination they are hoping to combat. The videos interview people who agree that discrimination = bad. It would be great for there to be some guidelines on discrimination in employment law and interviews with Real Life People With Mental Illness. And I’m talking someone other than John Kirwan, who has thoroughly repped the white, middle-aged man field of mental health. He’s done great work, sure – but is there no one else who can front this? 
  2. Pledging to end “mental illness discrimination” – hot tip: most advocates prefer the term “mental health” – is all very well on social media but what about real life? How about pointing out some examples of what discrimination looks and feels like? Are you there when your friend needs someone to talk to? Or are you the manager that asks an employee if they’re an alcoholic after they vomited in the toilet from a panic attack? (The manic pixie dreamgirl is a trope that needs to disappear; this stuff isn’t glamorous).
    There’s those who put a label like Bipolar or Schizophrenic (ht: John Key
    referring to Labour’s policy flip flopping) as a synonym for crazy. You can be high-functioning and stable on medication, want to tell people your diagnosis but such language leads to the common reaction of “wow, you don’t seem like you’re Bipolar!” We’ve embarked into an era where we can count our friendships in likes, retweets, and hashtags, so one of the most infuriating things during my major depressive episode in 2014 was people being like “r u ok? sad emoji” and bailing when I told them I wasn’t. Funnily enough, some of the same people who slipped off my radar with astounding speed are also sprinting to #stepforward on Facebook.
  3. It’s the attitudes from those in charge of policy who are harming mental health folk more than public stigma. Does this campaign mean the Government is finally going to address the shocking wait times for actually getting treatment? In my seven years in and out of mental health services, getting help has been the biggest barrier, not the odd side-eye when a visitor sees my medication box. I haven’t had counselling since 15 (I’m 23 now). When I was at my worst I had a three month wait to get into Auckland District Health Board mental health care. My doctor stepped forward then, giving me her personal number and saying I could text her anytime. The catchment-based allocation of resources makes even moving house fraught with difficulty, because by moving out of one area you effectively start from scratch in another. I now have an amazing case-worker, but still face a six month wait for counselling. Maybe I’ll be depressed again in April 2016?
  4. Haven’t we been hit with enough goddamn awareness campaigns since the ‘90s? This campaign obviously isn’t aimed at people like me who are familiar with thinking the world is so dark they’d rather cocoon themselves into a blanket. Instead it’s for the general public who don’t give mental health a second thought aside from the odd media story. But I think we’re underestimating them.
    The intentions are well-meaning but it comes across as naive, disingenuous and downright annoying to those who have mental health problems and are constantly on the receiving end of stigma and service cuts. I’m blunt about my issues – if I cancel on a friend because I’m in the throes of depression, I’ll say so. It took a while but I’ve learnt the people who run when mental health issues come up aren’t the people I want in my life anyway. Now my declaration is a Litmus test of sorts. I revel in your awkward pause. And my flatmate still invites me as a plus one to comedy shows, despite there being about a high chance of me not turning up because of the crowds (sorry Joseph).
    Most people know someone who has mental health issues – after-all one in five New Zealanders do – and are understanding. At one restaurant where I waitressed, when I opened up about the reason I was there and not following my freshly minted journalism degree (debilitating depressive episode after graduation) 6 out of 10 bright, breezy staff revealed they too had mental health issues – from suicide attempts, to Schizophrenia.
  5. There are way better places for this money to go. Take Mike King and his Key to Life trust. He visits high schools, relaying his experience with depression and suicide, but in a funny way that connects with kids. I’ve been in contact with him for the past year, watching his progress and seeing the effect his talks have had. When I was waiting for someone, anyone to answer my cries for help – literally, I once phoned a suicide helpline and was told “go for a walk” – King gave me his personal cellphone number. This was before I was a journalist.
    Yet recently DHBs warned schools against having him talk for fear of “suicide contagion”. This attitude seems very much at odds with trying to “end mental illness discrimination”. Stigma feeds out of ignorance. Raising the next generation to be comfortable with talking about mental health – King likens it to his generation not being comfortable with the Maori national anthem and how this generation doesn’t care – seems likely to do more for awareness than a cosy PR campaign ever could.


    As we prepared to publish, The Spinoff noted the brilliant Beck Eleven with a piece on a similar topic and campaign – also highly recommended reading.

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