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Why I Have Awareness Month Fatigue

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Health communities are bombarded by a procession of awareness months, and it feels like they never end. Autism Awareness Month. Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness Month. Mental Health Awareness Month. This is just a partial list of what we are supposed to be aware of in April and May. While it would be great if the general public would exhibit changed behavior for any such commemorations, I am not so naive as to believe that the function of these markers is anything other than performativity, namely, putting on a veneer of empathy for the express purpose of looking good to the wider culture. After all, what matters most to neurotypical society is not truly caring about the affected populations, but being thought to care. Cue the viral Facebook posts asking readers to give them a share to let people know that someone is always listening. However well-intentioned the promulgators of such content may be, those of us in the mental health community know the harsh reality is that most people are unprepared to step up when someone is struggling.

I learned this lesson the hard way in my sophomore year of college. A recent transfer to a nontraditional school, as an autistic person I had trouble interpreting and interfacing with social rules so different from the ones to which I had become accustomed. Floundering, I reached out to a woman from an outside political group who had pronounced that I could call her if I needed a shoulder to lean on. When I took her up on her offer, she did an about-face, explaining to me in no uncertain terms that she was not available to talk. “Speak to a counselor,” this individual demanded of me — despite the fact that I already was in contact with one. Confounded, I discussed the matter with my then-therapist, who imparted a harsh truth. “When most people offer mental health support,” she explained, “they don’t really mean it.” She continued, “It’s the socially polite thing to do.” Like many in my situation, over the next sixteen years, I would learn that someone is not always there. Most people would rather blithely post the number of the suicide hotline, before they would ever listen to a friend or family member in crisis.

While I wish the ersatz performativity of awareness days would be a thing of the past, they are here to stay, and human nature isn’t changing any time soon. Thus, I have an ask for privileged people who feel the need to celebrate them. Don’t share that social media post saying someone is always listening if you don’t intend to give up an hour or two of your time if a friend is in crisis. If you are not part of a community that has an awareness day, but you want to show up, ask an affected person what appropriate action would look like. Too often, what we hear through viral posts and what most members of a group want are two different things. For instance, while organizations such as Autism Speaks ask allistics to “Light It Up Blue,” for Autism Awareness Month, a majority of autistics do not support this initiative. Finally, center a person who is impacted by an awareness month. Ask them what they want and what they need to achieve it. Only then will you be better prepared to show up. After all, understanding someone’s condition and needs always trumps centering oneself through the latest viral trend passing as awareness.


Lead image via Getty Images

Originally published: May 17, 2021
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