OPINION: Time to end stigma attached to mental illness

A memorial to the air disaster in the French Alps. Picture: Reuters

A memorial to the air disaster in the French Alps. Picture: Reuters

MORE than ever before, our media is opening up opportunities for individuals, families and communities to be part of a conversation about what being mentally healthy means and get a better understanding of the realities of living with mental illness.

We know that four million Australians will experience mental illness this year alone. Many more of us will be affected as family members, friends, colleagues or school mates. No longer can we consider mental illness to be a fringe issue affecting only a few. In fact, it affects us all.  

Some days I think we are making great progress. It is true that we now have workplaces, communities and health services more engaged and talking about how we can improve the mental health and wellbeing of all Australians.

 This is a positive move in the right direction – an important step forward.

But then another tragic international media story comes along (this time the crash of a Germanwings plane into the French Alps) and we all take a big leap backwards.

Whenever a disaster or significant event occurs, it’s perfectly understandable for people to try and make sense of it, to try and find ‘‘a reason’’ why it happened. 

But there is a difference between trying to make sense of a terrible situation, and making assumptions that can be very damaging.  Speculation about what caused an event and making assumptions about the role of mental illness isn’t just innocent commentary to the one in five Australians who live with mental illness. 

Further, when these tragic international media stories come along, it seems the only people invited to make comment on what is a very complex and tragic scenario are social commentators, politicians and the media.

Where is the voice of the mental health sector when tragedies happen and we all jump to the conclusion that mental illness must be to blame (in this case, the mental health of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz)?

Where is the calm, reasoned voice that reminds us all that, statistically, mental illness is a poor predictor of violent behaviour like this?  Where is the reminder that it is discrimination to suggest people living with mental illness should be screened out of the workforce?  And where is the voice that reminds us that creating a culture where people feel the need to hide their mental illness is bad for all of us?

Last year, during mental health month, I shared the following interaction: 

I was speaking to a man who was surprised by the number of people living with mental illness. In his own words, he asked me: “If mental illness is so common, then why don’t I know anyone who has a mental illness?”

He looked a little perplexed when I told him that he was asking the wrong question. I explained that a better question to ask was: “Why don’t any of your friends and family living with mental illness feel like they can tell you about it?”

I told this story, not to single out this man, but as a reminder to all of us to start asking ourselves and the people around us the right questions.

Why, after a decade of effort to increase awareness and knowledge about mental illness, do some people still return to work following an episode of mental illness to silence and averted gazes? 

Why do family and friends of those living with mental illness often sit at home with no one to talk to about how they are coping, while we cook food and check in on our friends with a sick child? 

Why do men and women of all ages who know that what they are thinking and feeling may be caused by mental illness feel unable to reach out and get help they need? 

The reality is, despite the progress we have made, the stigma of mental illness still exists.  

And the discussions that have occurred in our media, on social media and indeed in our own homes this week have put us all a big step back.

For the many in our community who live with depression and other forms of mental illness, I will leave you with a tweet I sent out a few nights ago: ‘‘People living with depression are welcome in my workplace, in my sporting club and indeed in my family.’’  

Jaelea Skehan is director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health.

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