“Send Silence Packing” a welcome improvement in mental health campaigning

The sight of 131 backpacks each representing a student who took their own life doesn’t hold back on the message

Last Monday, the “Send Silence Packing” mental health awareness campaign laid out multicoloured bags like tombstones across the lawn on Front Square. Red bags, blue bags, orange, black – each standing for one of the 131 students who took their own lives last year. The instalment was a one-day-only affair, but its Twitter afterlife has resounded under the hashtag “#SendSilencePacking”. The bags will get additional airings in colleges all over the rest of Ireland.

One thing I really liked about the display: it was everyone’s sight to see. Unlike previous “Please Talk” activism, there was no specific addressee, no “Hey, listen up, all you mentally ill people who aren’t doing enough to un-mentally-ill yourselves.”

Past campaigns have dwelled not on problems with how the public treat mentally ill people, but on how mentally ill people should ask the public to treat them. It’s mendacious to tell a marginalised group that the main thing holding them back is how they feel about themselves, particularly when they have every precedent to think they’ll be ignored no matter how loud they raise their voice.

Robust self-esteem won’t stop the world from looking down on you when discrimination and underprovision of services persist. A willingness to pool the blame for Ireland’s mental health crisis is a welcome step away from this “pin the tail on the victim” business.

Granted, the campaign’s rhetorical universality carried a probably inevitable degree of vagueness. “Every one of us can play our part in changing this”, announced a placard in front of the bags. “End the silence.” And cringily enough (or perhaps, to a less cynical observer, charmingly kitsch): “Send silence packing.”

Some obvious criticisms spring up here. End the silence by doing what? Should we rally against austerity-loving governments intent on cutting services for mentally ill people (and ill people of all other denominations) so they can bankroll the ruling class, or do we just need to like-y’know be sounder to our mates when they seem like-y’know a bit sad, like? “Play our part”: nice sentiment, but woolier than an alpaca.

The slogan’s “everyone”-ness, too, makes it politically tepid. When richer people can afford private counselling and all the medication they need, cuts to services should be understood not only as an “everyone” problem but as another instantiation of widescale Fine Gael/Labour (and, to be fair, Fianna Fáil/Green) class warfare.

To be clear, mental illness hurts everyone and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. Still, this government and its ideologically identical predecessors have disproportionately slashed healthcare access for working class communities. There’s a danger to “all in the same boat” rhetoric when it papers over a gaping and growing class divide in medical provision.

Politically anodyne mental health activism is nothing new, but it’s worth pointing it out every single time it happens. Doing it once is an individual decision, but the fact that it keeps happening suggests a chronic focus on atomising individuals’ circumstances from the policies that shape their lives. That neutralising effect slips nicely into a justification of the status quo: if small localised tweaks are all you need to solve mental health, then why would anyone even ponder radical upheaval?

But it’s probably unfair to expect an awareness campaign in the “Send Silence Packing” tradition to present an itemised bullet-point list of policy demands. Front Square isn’t a “sit and ponder the state apparatus” sort of location. Most people walking past are probably a) tourists unaware of the cultural context of the campaign, or b) tardy students primarily concerned with the possibility that their lecturers have already started passing around the attendance sheet (she typed sheepishly). Would these people read a lengthy treatise on neoliberal approaches to mental health, let alone act on it? Outlook unlikely.

And despite my quibbles, I was delighted with the way “Send Silence Packing” drafted in every passer-by. It certainly beat the trend of previous “Please Talk”-esque activism, which tended to locate the problem of Irish mental health not in tight-fisted healthcare provision, not in declining living conditions, not even in an apolitical characterisation of stigma – but in the fact that, Jaysus, people aren’t talking enough.

A campaign aimed at “every one of us” may not be a call to address those root causes, but it’s a step closer than “Hey, people who are likely to be misunderstood and stigmatised if you come forward, many of you in the knowledge that all the interpersonal support in the world won’t magic the money into your account to both stock up on SSRIs and have enough food to last the week: open up, tell us how you really feel! The rest of you, keep doing what you’re doing.”

And there’s a positive flip-side to the campaign’s vagueness: its openness. This didn’t just happen at the nebulous Lord Kitchener level of asking people to do their bit. The campaign invited passers by to stop and write messages on tags, and there are leaflets floating around Twitter with blank spaces to fill in the sentence: “My promise to Send Silence Packing around mental health problems and suicide is…” – again, this is not revolutionary stuff, but it’s more willing than previous activism to suggest there’s a societal responsibility to address the issue.

Additionally, it’s great that the campaign leaves it open for people to help in whatever way they think best. From where I’m standing on the ideological spectrum, mental health activism is a drop in the ocean if it lacks a coherent political critique, but there’s no reason that particular view (or any particular view) should be the only one included in the conversation.

Certain mental health policy suggestions are controversial to the extent that some campaigners believe they’re actively harmful, but the majority of sensible mental health activism carries broad agreement that it’s a Good Thing compared to doing nothing at all. We can agree that it’s better it happen than not, even if we disagree over whether it’s the optimum place to target energy and resources.

For instance, I don’t think friends looking out for friends or the existence of emergency helplines will solve Ireland’s mental health crisis. I also believe that eliding this fact when we talk about mental health makes it easier for the government to whitewash its ongoing campaign against vulnerable people.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these measures still make a huge difference to many people’s lives. I’m glad other people have chosen them as focal points of their activism, particularly if the alternative, for someone who doesn’t want to systemically criticise austerity, is doing nothing. It’s good, therefore, that the field is open to diverse suggestions on how to make a difference.

Image via TCDSU