What’s Wrong With You?

Sam Moran lifts the veil of ignominy on mental illness


“Powerful and pervasive, stigma prevents people from acknowledging their own mental health problems, much less disclosing them to others” – US Surgeon General in 1999

I feel as if I am dancing on the edge of a chasm, which threatens every day to drag me down so my solution is to not look, to hide in ignominy and fear, to hope that the darkness passes by. Yet each day, I can feel the cold, it seeps into my bones and it draws colour from the world.

It would be easy to presume this is where I come out, declaring publicly that I have depression, or have been battling an anxiety disorder for years. It is not. My confession is simpler, yet it corrodes me, embarrasses me just to admit. My confession is that someone very close to me suffers from mental illness and I am terrified, every single day, that I will say something, or do something, or cause them to tip into an abyss where I cannot follow them. And yet upon reflection I also want to ask myself, how dare I? How dare I complain or try to compete with their suffering? I am not. But I think I am far from the only person; I think my reaction largely characterises much of how Australia treats mental illness.

Almost one in five adults in Australia are diagnosed with a mental illness each year in Australia, the most common of which are anxiety disorders and depression. Even more concerning are the many that remain undiagnosed. Mental illness, even amongst those who have had to confront it, retains tremendously powerful stigmas relating to both the nature of the diseases and also those people who suffer from it. Consequently, there is a societal reticence to discuss the problems plaguing one fifth of our population.

Why is it misunderstood?

Treatment of mental illness is hindered almost as much, if not more so, by external pressures such as pejorative stereotypes, than the actual chemical and psychological factors that constitutes the disease. But this leads us to the question – why is it that mental illness is so misunderstood?

The answer to that is obviously a multiplicity of factors, each with their own nuances, which could take books to consider. Yet in short, there is a lack of understanding about the types of mental illness and the extent to which they are a choice or a chemical, physiological imbalance. There is a terrifying practice amongst many people – presumably driven by a lack of understanding and probably a corresponding unwillingness to confront a stark, painful reality – to pretend that mental illness is a choice. It is not uncommon for people suffering from depression to be told to “harden up”, people who are physiologically anxious are told to “calm down” and people who are anorexic are told to “eat more”. These statements, while often small or even phrased as jokes can devastating to the fragile psyche of individuals who deal with these traumas on a daily basis. Not only do these statements demonstrate a cutting lack of compassion and understanding, but they also belie the fact that many victims of mental illness are aware of their problem but are unable – sometimes even when they are receiving help – to change the patterns of their behaviour. Further, the people who make these thoughtless comments are also often those closest to the victims, which further break down their ability to discuss their problems and enhances the common perceptions of isolation and defeatism.

I find myself constantly struggling not to shout, “think about it”, “c’mon it’s not that bad” and even just “get a grip”. But you can’t. Not only because it is pointless, but because you risk alienating that person. You risk losing the trust you just built by spending an hour talking with them, or helping them to focus on the everyday tasks that now take that much more effort.

Mental illness is a society-wide problem, yet it disproportionately affects young people. A range of studies conducted has indicated that as a person’s age increases their risk of mental illness decreases. That is scary. It scares me to think about it because I wonder how many of my peers at school, who I dismissed as being not cut-out for hard work or for simply suffering the normal angst of puberty, struggle with mental illness. I say struggle not struggled because mental illness is not something you necessarily outgrow. Vestiges of it cling to you, like cobwebs in your mind, that no matter how carefully you clean will always slowly slip back into the darkest corners.

Sane Australia reports that with proper, medical attention sufferers of mental illness can live a full, wholesome life, unencumbered by the cobwebs. But Sane estimates that less than half of people with mental illnesses receive proper treatment. The effects of this while wide ranging are perhaps most powerfully shown by considering the suicide rate, with up to 15% of those suffering from mental illness committing suicide – in contrast to approximately 1% of the entire population.

Obviously, more can be done to help people – but what can we, university students (particularly those not training to be medical professionals) do to help?

First, we have to stop pretending the problem does not exist or is only small. Australian lawyers experience depression at a rate of approximately 49% according to a survey of 125 professionals by Beaton Consulting in 2011. Similarly, a study conducted in 2010 found that dentists not only had one of the highest rates of depression, but also one of the highest rates of suicide.

Second, we have to know where to go to access information. Sometimes the information is for ourselves, and sometimes it is for those around us. It is our responsibility to be informed on issues that impact us one way or another. There are numerous sources, from the more public institutions of BeyondBlue and Sane Australia, to the Butterfly Foundation, there are also numerous helplines such as the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, ReachOut and HeadSpace. Those are just the tip of the iceberg – but we should all have a better understanding of what these problems are and who can help.

Finally, we can be patient. No matter how frustrating it is, no matter how trivial it is, no matter how bad your day is – remember your support is essential and sometimes you just have to wait it out. That does not mean that you should let your friend or family-member hide away in a room forever, but it means recognising when they need a break or when not to push too hard. These are all struggles – as I am learning, but they are worth it. Because when you keep at it, sometimes, just occasionally you see them laugh or smile or they do something that reminds you of who they are without the monolithic burden they are carrying and you realise why it is worth it. Life is precious, our thoughts are our most pure articulation of that – make sure we help everyone enjoy their own.