Stigma, suicide and schizophrenia were all discussed by a group of mental illness sufferers and psychologists for a special Q&A in celebration of mental health month.
“What does it take to make society appreciate that mental illness can be as debilitating as physical illness?” Sydney student Xavier Eales asked the panel.
Former AFL star and founder of the Sunrise Foundation, Wayne Schwass, who has battled with depression, said that men were “just as complex” as women.
“Yet as a country and as a community, (men) aren’t supported, we aren’t encouraged to talk honestly and open about complex issues and we need to be, because the reality is a conversation can be the beginning of somebody getting help, getting appropriate treatment and that’s an important conversation to have,” Mr Schwass said.
It took 12 years after his depression diagnosis, he said, to work up the courage to sit down with his family and tell them he was unwell before going public with the information.
“It was the first time I could be authentic and that was the beginning of a slow process of recovery,” he said.
“I have people who support me in my life and if people want to make a judgment or have a different negative decision on me then that is OK, that’s their opinion.”
Teacher Melissa Sorial asked the panel for advice for parents and educators after one of her Year 8 students took her own life earlier this year.
Co-director of health and policy at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, Ian Hickie said one in 10 Australian teenagers had self-harmed while one in six to seven young women thought about suicide during teenage years.
“The response to the adult world is still to be rather dismissive of that, hoping he or she will grow out of it, just hoping, which is distinct from any other health problem,” he said, noting that parents don’t “hope” their children recover from chronic illnesses like asthma or diabetes.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had shown his support in tackling mental illness but the government could follow through by implementing policy, Professor Hickie said.
“Every sector in Australia needs a national suicide prevention program, they need to start in rural and regional Australia,” he said.
Psychologist and research fellow at the University of Western Australia’s School of Indigenous Studies, Pat Dudgeon said indigenous youth suicide rates across the top half of the nation were the highest in the world.
“This is the consequences of the brutal takeover of lands, the denigration of Indigenous people, and then policies that were draconian and took away all their human rights,” Professor Dudgeon said. “So we’re probably, as a society, in a process of recovery.”
Professor Hickie said Australia had a “terrible tradition of white-guy solutions being imposed on indigenous communities” which ultimately failed.
“Pat has run several programs to demonstrate the power is within Indigenous communities but it needs to be supported in everything we do, in government policy, social policy, employment and education,” Professor Hickie said.
Chief executive of Richmond Psychiatric Rehabilitation Australia and long term mental illness sufferer, Fay Jackson, described her painful experience with schizophrenia.
“I went through a stage where I felt so alien to everybody else and I actually held onto my tongue when I was speaking so that I knew that it was me speaking,” Ms Jackson said.
She acknowledged that the choice to take medication was a “vexed” issue but said she became too unwell when she is not medicated.
This article first appeared on ‘The Australian’ on 6 October 2015.