A BLOG POST
It’s Mental Health Week. And in the past, that has meant a lot of awareness-raising, stigma-quashing and acknowledgement of an issue that has for too long been treated like a shameful secret. And that’s all good, useful stuff. But the time has long since passed for more than knowing nods and pleasant words from those with the capacity to DO instead of DISCUSS.
Mental illness needs ACTION. NOW.
Health service providers, governments, mental health commissions/ advocates/ peak bodies and communities must move from rhetoric to establishing equitable service provision immediately. Otherwise how can anyone believe that mental health issues are, in fact, the cruel scourge afflicting millions unfairly as the annual PR tells us? We know they exist. And, thankfully, we now have knowledge of a range of pharmaceutical adjustments, treatment methods and support programs that mean these issues can be addressed. People CAN heal and progress and discover lives without the agony they once believed was infinite. BUT until the money, time and effort allocated to mental health is in line with those physical health issues that have the same level of impact, people affected by mental illness can’t feel as far from personally responsible for their health concerns as those with a blood disease or multiple sclerosis can.
The message will remain that they are inferior. Weak. Malingerers. Wasting peoples’ time just because they want attention. And all the other TOTALLY INVALID slurs that add to the demoralising weight of being burdened with mental health issues. Because mental health issues are insidious in far too many unjust ways – one of the most damaging being that, for some reason, they are seen to reflect negatively on a person’s character. A person’s values and beliefs. Their nature, strength, tenacity, personality, fortitude, courage.
And that is so very very wrong.
Purely because of the mixture of brain chemicals, the genetic recipe courtesy of ancestors or an environment/occurrences in preceding years that are none of an individual’s own doing, a person can have the most debilitating fears, unfathomable mood swings, nightmarish thoughts … things that make their lives a waking hell. And then they are viewed – by themselves as well as others – as not as tough as other people. Not as robust as they could be. Making a fuss over nothing when they could just ‘get on with it’. Being feeble or cowardly when it would just as easy to ‘buck up’ or ‘cheer up’ or ‘don’t worry’. But people with mental health issues are so far from those derogatory perceptions that to experience that belittling is yet another injustice that they are currently forced to suffer. Because the opposite is, in fact, true. To deal with what they deal with AND continue to put everything into living a life takes more courage than any professional sportsperson gifted with talent and praised as a hero could ever muster. Without the burden of the feelings and thoughts that are the direct result of mental illness, many people can move through most of a day with the clarity and capacity to concentrate and apply themselves to overcoming any obstacles that present themselves. BUT …
~ if you woke each morning in a suit of armour lined with cold hard spikes, it would take a huge effort to get out of bed
~ if there was an army of flesh-chewing insects flicking and scratching under all the skin across your entire body, you’d feel agitated and irritable and resistant to going out to ‘have some fun’
~ if you knew logically that the dank dark cloud surrounding you and seeping into every pore was just a feeling and that it wasn’t slowly poisoning you but you still felt as if every cell had the cold chill of death invading it, you might not be up for a sunny barbeque.
And you could be as disparaging about yourself as others might be. Because you knew what was real and what wasn’t and you still felt as if you were dying through every long second. And that’s just clinical depression. The showbag of mental illness has many more offerings to bestow on the unlucky people who are handed that prize in the lottery of life.
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, I’m not saying it’s not a cruel hand to be dealt. It is. Absolutely. But more often than not, you are supported. Your ‘battle’ with the disease is seen as courageous and your character isn’t directly linked to what you’re able to do and not do because of your symptoms. A person with a mental health issue is battling not just with their illness and with others’ assumptions but their own intolerance at their personal inability to ‘be like everyone else’. They see people out in world working, talking, smiling, doing and know that it would be like dragging their body through scalding treacle for them to try and do those simple things. And they flagellate themselves for their [inaccurate] view of their own frailty. [Because that self-hatred is all part of the mental illness too!] They feel worthless and useless and incapable. When, in fact, they are doing the equivalent of running marathons and climbing mountains by getting up and making breakfast or trying to go for a walk.
So, you see, this mental health thing is a tormentor. And it’s affecting our population in pandemic proportions. And it doesn’t need to be. Because some very dedicated people have found ways to counter the insidious creep of mental illness. BUT far too many people with mental health issues are unable to access the most effective treatment for their needs. When Medicare allows only 10 visits to a psychologist but “there’s no ten session rule for people with physical illness” (Patrick McGorry, 9 June 2016), there is a clear disparity in the way governments view mental health vs. physical health. When suicidal young people continue to be turned away from hospital emergency departments by scornful judgements that attention-seeking is a prank played by stable teenagers, there is an ignorance that must be immediately addressed in our health practitioners as well as in the general populace. And as long as there are deficits in budgets, attitudes and services, what can those personally dealing with mental health issues take from that? Those who already hate themselves because of a fear they don’t understand, thoughts or behaviours they can’t control and that chip away at their psyche, simply get reinforcement. That they’re worth less. Worthless. AND THAT IS JUST PLAIN WRONG. Because – I can’t state this often enough – a mental illness is no reflection on the character of the person suffering. It does not make them weak. Or a freak. Or bad. It’s as much their fault as spina bifida is the fault of a newborn whose spinal cord isn’t fully enclosed. So when people with mental health issues use every ounce of persistence, stamina and courage to counter the debilitating effects of their health issues, to seek help in confronting the nightmares that afflict them, they are the most admirable people. In that way, their character is clearly evident. They are the strongest, bravest human beings you could encounter. To do something you enjoy and have aptitude for with no obstructions is easy. To do something you fear when your own brain is scorching you with resistance and your body is dragging snarling weights or shredding your nerves into shards takes the greatest strength, willpower and courage.
So people who have the misfortune of genetics, chemical make-up or circumstance to be dealing with mental health issues deserve our best support. And that means our compassion and assistance BUT it also has to mean a more tangible demonstration of understanding. HEALTH SERVICE PROVIDERS MUST PUT THE MONEY, EXPERTISE AND TIME NEEDED INTO DEVELOPING AND PROVIDING A FULL AND WIDELY ACCESSIBLE RANGE OF SERVICES TO ASSIST WITH EVERY KIND OF CHALLENGE THAT EXISTS IN MENTAL HEALTH. This means:
a complete system with options for those with prevalent conditions and for those with complex, severe and atypical diagnoses
treatment options that are regionally accessible; that meet the needs of people at every age (according to maturation and development not purely chronology), in all types of domestic situations and with a wide range of obligations, responsibilities and challenges
there must be effective communication links between programs, facilities and treatment options to facilitate collaboration amongst professionals so that they comprise one functioning multidisciplinary team and
there must be clear pathways between services to allow stable transitions by patients whose needs change
all general practitioners and emergency department staff must be provided with ongoing education to become more aware of all the issues, the services available and the appropriate ways to respond in a range of situations.
All this happens in relation to treatment for physical health issues. So it can happen for mental health issues.
IT IS OVERDUE THAT MENTAL HEALTH IS UNANIMOUSLY ACKNOWLEDGED AS AN ISSUE OF THE HIGHEST PRIORITY. And the impacts on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians is too damaging to ignore any longer.
In Australia during 2013–14, $6,639 per person was spent on health services. Only $344 of that was on mental health-related services.
$1 billion more was spent on oral health ($7.1 billion) than on mental disorders ($6.1 billion) in 2008–09. No one is saying that flossing isn’t important. But when around 60,000 Australians try to end their lives each year and 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental illness within a 12-month period, we need to have a much more proactive, equitable approach to dealing with mental health issues.
And if the focus can’t be driven by a compassionate, empathic approach to our fellow humans OR a sense of the obligation of those privileged by nothing more than luck to not be personally affected by mental health issues, perhaps those with the power to do something might look up from their financial statements if they registered that major depression accounts for more days lost to illness than almost any other physical or mental disorder. One person’s suffering is personal torture; stress and trauma for a family; and challenge and despair for friends and colleagues. One in five people affected incapacitates communities.