On the surface there seems nothing wrong with bringing people's attention to the plight of other human beings. As a concept awareness raising began life in political activism, but was soon embraced by the advertising industry. It does not take a huge leap of faith to conclude that National Smile Week, as delightful and charming as we may find smiles, was sponsored by the British Dental Association and not by an independent group of well-intentioned philanthropists. When the instigators of various awareness raising campaigns are funded either directly or indirectly by large vested corporate or state interests, we should at the very least question their motives.
One may reasonably argue that citizens of affluent countries are relatively unaware of the misery that millions of the world's poor endure every day. Likewise millions of keen motorists are not fully aware of the consequences of rapidly diminishing supplies of cheap oil. However, when these poignant issues become ineluctable realities with global poverty descending on the doorsteps of plush suburban neighbourhoods and the world's greediest superpower at war over oil, the power elites milk public interest to further their own agendas. Thus rock idols are hired to promote phoney debt relief plans and temporarily boost the profile of ambitious politicians. Oil multinationals claim to be Beyond Petroleum, while government seeks to sway public opinion in favour of nuclear power maintaining that our consumerist lifestyle should remain non-negotiable.
However, it is the burgeoning the mental health sector that has best fine-tuned the art of awareness raising, appealing to the emotions of the wishful-thinking Guardian or Independent-reading middle classes. All too often we witness concerted information campaigns for the latest mental health label accompanied by documentaries and reports in the mainstream media, prominently displayed books attributed to victims, relatives, activists or psychiatrists. While previously we had just considered depression as intense sadness and mania as a set of psychotic behaviours induced by life's misfortunes and intoxication, we suppress the conventional wisdom of 1960s and 70s and begin to deploy the newfangled terminology of the psychiatric establishment. When media-savvy experts urge us to show greater tolerance towards sufferers of manic depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourettes or Asperger's syndrome, they redefine our attitudes to groups of human beings whose behaviours, in all but the most extreme cases, fit neatly into a multidimensional maze of personality types. Rather than reduce the stigma that most mental health patients receive, awareness raising leads the public subconsciously to consider its purported beneficiaries as unfortunate misfits against whom society must be protected. It only takes one BBC documentary about a paedophile with Asperger's Syndrome to spread distrust in the wider TV-addicted atomised community, now desensitised to the civil rights implications of pre-school screening, psychoactive medication and the relentless extension of the concepts of learning disabilities and personality disorders. It may be fine for a select group of celebrity sufferers of mental illnesses to publicise their trials and tribulations, but the masses of psychiatrically labelled people out there have to cope with the unspoken distrust and condescending attitudes of anyone aware of their new classification.
In some ways we may view mental health awareness raising as a form of authorised bullying. Feelings that may manifest themselves to an undiagnosed person as emotional distress and social alienation, are attributed not to society, but to endogenous disorders, thereby relieving their tormentors of any guilt other than their lack of awareness of the psychiatric conditions of their classmates, neighbours or colleagues. Numerous campaigns build on the theme of "The Same but Different". While wishful-thinking support workers may genuinely believe such sloganising promotes inclusiveness, the public mainly receives the different bit of the message.