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  • Writer's pictureKaren Caswell

Why Talking About Mental Health Matters

Updated: Sep 25, 2019

What does 'mental health' mean? According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

There can be times, however, when our mental health is impacted by events around us, societal 'norms', or even by our own personality type. This is when we become vulnerable to developing a mental health condition. Mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can affect any of us at any time. But at different points in our lives we can be at greater risk – when we're going through big life changes such as becoming an adult, retiring, starting a family, or losing someone we love, for example. Experiencing discrimination because of our sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity or religion can also cause psychological distress and make us much more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

I’m going to list some Australian statistics (which I’m sure are mirrored around the world) that show just how prevalent mental health conditions are.

· In Australia, it's estimated that 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.

· One in four young people experiences a mental health condition and suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 24.

· Almost eight people die by suicide each day in Australia. Six of these are men. In many cases mental health conditions are a contributing factor.

· Women experience some mental health conditions (including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress) at higher rates than men.

· Depression is one of the most disabling mental conditions of later life, and research suggests that those who experience a chronic medical condition are twice as likely to develop major depression.

· It's common for both parents to experience a range of emotions during pregnancy, women may experience anxiety or depression and it can be a stressful time for dads too.

· Compared to other Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of depression, social isolation and chronic health problems. Research also shows that when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience racism it impacts their mental health.

· Lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex (LGBTI), bodily, gender and sexuality diverse people are much more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the broader population.

· Factors that increase the risk of depression and anxiety for people from different backgrounds may include the stress of adapting to a new culture, racism and discrimination.

(Source Beyond Blue)

Occupations most at risk of mental health conditions include defence force personnel, first responders (police, firefighters and paramedics), teachers, health and welfare support workers, prison officers, social and welfare professionals, public transport workers and Indigenous Health Workers. (Source Safe Work Australia)

Given the high rate or mental health conditions, and the range of those most at risk, why are we still so reluctant to talk about mental health? I believe that most of it comes from the sufferer's own feelings of fear and shame, however much of it also stems from society’s misconceptions around mental health conditions and the stigma attached, the media's representation of mental health conditions, and from the fact that it is simply uncomfortable for others to hear and they don’t know how to react or respond.

A stigma is a mark, a stain, a blemish, and there is a stigma surrounding mental health conditions. People with mental health conditions may be treated as different, as if they are somehow less than other people. Stigma occurs whenever there are negative opinions, judgments or stereotypes about anyone with a mental health condition. Stigma shows when someone with a mental health condition is called 'irrational’, 'crazy' or 'incompetent', rather than unwell. When normal human reactions to situations are judged as a being a reaction caused by a mental health condition, and therefore possibly an overreaction. Some of the harmful effects of stigma for people suffering mental health conditions include feelings of shame, helplessness and isolation; reluctance to seek help or treatment; lack of understanding; fewer employment or social opportunities; bullying, violence or harassment; and self-doubt. Stigma can lead to a lack of support or empathy for people with a mental illness, leaving people embarrassed, misunderstood, and marginalised. These effects compound an already complex issue, and can provide real barriers to recovery.

For me, one of the main reasons I avoided acknowledging my depression, and then resisted talking about it, was guilt. What did I have to be depressed about? I had a wonderful life, blessed with a loving husband and two happy, healthy boys. We were financially comfortable and able to provide everything our family needed. I had amazing friends, and a job I loved. I’d had a normal upbringing, within a warm, caring, ‘regular’ family, and I had never experienced any trauma. How dare I be depressed! The other main reason was shame. There is such a stigma attached to mental health conditions, a stigma which I also bought into, and I didn’t want to be seen as weak, fragile, incapable, or damaged in some way.

In ‘Daring Greatly’, Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame can be insidious as it creeps in slowly and stealthily, colouring our perception of ourselves within our world and our relationships. In this way, shame causes us to hide our true self, as we feel that once we are really seen, we will be rejected, left, ridiculed, because our true, flawed self will be realised by the other.

It is only through stepping out of shame and taking the brave step of sharing our personal stories of mental health conditions and recovery, that we can increase awareness, reduce stigma, encourage people to talk about how they’re feeling and to take action to get help.

For those who are worried about how to support someone with a mental health condition, one of the simplest ways is through having a conversation. A conversation can make the difference in helping someone feel less alone and more supported in recovering from a mental health condition. You don’t need to solve anything for them, or know the ‘right words to say’ - don’t underestimate the importance of just ‘being there’.

We need to work together to remove the stigma surrounding mental health conditions, as they are not something shameful that needs to be hidden. We must challenge the stigma by examining our own possible judgments or prejudices, and by speaking up when we hear people around us make negative or stereotypical comments about mental health conditions. Everyone has a role to play in creating a mentally healthy community.

Where to get help.

- Your GP (Doctor)

- Your local community health centre

- Beyond Blue Tel. 1300 22 4636

- Lifeline Tel 13 11 14

- Kids Helpline Tel 1800 55 1800

- SANE Australia Helpline Tel. 1800 187 263

- Mind Australia Tel. 1300 AT MIND (1300 286 463)

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