That’s why people like Prince Harry and Rio Ferdinand have been speaking so wonderfully and so openly about their experiences of mental illness lately. But I must admit, I sometimes find that word – awareness – a strange one.
When we were 14, my friend Conor’s Mum lost her battle with cancer. She’d been treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager in the seventies and the radiotherapy she received then meant she was always at risk of the disease returning.
After she died, the problem – for Conor, his family, his teachers, his friends – was not a lack of awareness. All of them were aware that Conor was struggling, that grief was taking a terrible toll on him, that his all-consuming, mega-competitive love of sport was partly an outlet for a grief he didn’t know how to deal with.
The problem was powerlessness.
Nobody knew how to help Conor, so nobody did.
Not long ago, I watched a documentary about the Industrial Revolution. The historian asked a question I’ve never thought about before: Why did the Industrial Revolution happen in Britain? Why not France, or Germany, or the US, or any other developed nation of the time?
Part of the answer was not that Britain had more engineering visionaries – men like Brunel or Stephenson – but rather that Britain had more skilled craftsmen than other nations. These builders, masons and blacksmiths could make the designer’s vision a reality by taking ideas drawn on paper and building them with stone or steel.
It’s a half-decent illustration of the way we, as a society and a church family, can address the problem of mental illness. We live in a world that’s dependent upon ‘specialists’ – psychotherapists, doctors, pharmacists – to treat us, fix us and medicate our problems away. Like the great engineers who designed our railways and bridges, the expertise of these professionals is vital.
But, just as urgently, we need a much larger group of competent, courageous and clued up people ‘on the ground’ who are able and willing to come alongside struggling people and support them.
In other words, people like you and me.
As a teenager, Conor was mad about A) sport and B) girls. There was no way he was going to sit in a room for an hour a week with a psychotherapist talking about his Mum. He tried it once and never went back.
When I look back on that time, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if someone in his life had come alongside him and dared to talk with him about his grief. What if, instead of assuming he’d figure it out himself in the long run, a rugby coach, a school teacher, or someone at church had considered the long-term effects of all that bottled-up trauma inside him?
Last month, the month of National Mental Health Awareness, my friend Conor took his own life at 25. Those of us who knew and loved him are heartbroken – he was one of the brightest and the best.
We all have a part to play here, because we all know people in suffering. Many people in Bristol are living with depression, anxiety or the effects of past trauma. They need more than our awareness and they certainly need more than our sympathy.
They need us to be very brave. It can be awkward to ask those sensitive questions, can’t it? People can think us strange if we offer to pray for them when they share their struggles with us.
But it’s critical that we begin to try, together. Because it could make all the difference in the world.