As a 15-year-old school student, the only thing preventing me from seeking the help I needed to treat early signs of anxiety was a persistent fear of weakness. I was too afraid of losing an image of confidence and success, too worried that people would forget I was capable, and worse, I was fearful that those closest around me would look at me differently. For more time than necessary, I was one of the staggering 80 per cent of young people who live with a mental illness and who do not seek help. The reasons for this are aplenty – from access, to quality of services – but for me at the time, the sticking issue was stigma. Stigma fuels shame, which in turn silences a person’s ability to get support. Stigma is what’s spurred when we make rushed and ill-founded claims about mental illness, as has been done with the reporting of the Germanwings crash and the ongoing struggles of former AFL footballer Ben Cousins. When it is allowed to perpetuate, stigma can have wildly dangerous consequences.
The labelling of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of the Germanwings aircraft, as someone with depression, which somehow was linked with him wanting to take the lives of complete strangers, could not be further from the truth. Years of research into mental health has highlighted that individuals with depression are not at an increased risk of committing acts of violence, which we don’t even know if Lubitz was experiencing at the time of the flight. And further, it now creates that much more of a barrier for pilots who are suffering with mental illness but are also highly competent at what they do, to gain the appropriate support they require for fear of losing work. Similarly, every move of Ben Cousins has been under intense scrutiny in the past month, and it is clear he is urgently in need of support. But again, to make fun of his situation, as has been done on social media and on some news outlets, is irresponsible at best. It is unjust to reduce this man, who for many years was a highly successful athlete, to someone who has been repeatedly been branded as dangerous to everyone around him, without knowing the specifics of his health condition. If indeed he is experiencing serious mental illness, our response needs to be one of compassion – not derision. When it is allowed to perpetuate, stigma can have wildly dangerous consequences. It may even have played some part in the devastating passing of the year 8 student who may have taken her own life at a Sydney high school last week. The leading cause of death among young people aged between 15 and 24 remains suicide, highlighting that there is no place for stigma in our society. There is no doubt that we have come far as a modern society in understanding mental health. But moments like this show there is much work to do in developing a generation of people who are alert and literate to the facts about mental health. Information on the types of mental health conditions is readily available, but gaps remain in understanding how, and to what extent, mental health affects individuals’ abilities to perform their day-to-day responsibilities. Being equipped with these insights could play a transformative role in shifting the attitudes required to better support individuals experiencing mental health difficulties, and enable those individuals to feel comfortable in reaching out to seek help without fear of judgment. Only a few years ago, as a 15-year-old experiencing some mental health issues, it was this change in approach from my school, friends, family, and within myself even, that made the crucial difference. Minto Felix is a youth mental health advocate.
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This article first appeared The AGE, 30 March 2015.