It’s Mental Health Week, an annual event aimed at promoting ways to achieve good mental health and increase awareness of mental illness and how best to respond to it. Among those doing good work in the field are the Black Dog Institute, the White Cloud Foundation, Beyond Blue, Headspace, Mindspot, SANE, Lifeline, Living Is For Everyone, This Way Up, Open Minds, Mental Awareness Foundation, Mental Health Association, Capril, plus pretty much everyone asking R U OK?
So I think we can safely say compared to last century, there is greatly increased awareness of and focus on mental health issues. Despite this, there is clearly still significant social stigma associated with mental illness. Even for many people who reject this stigma and want to be supportive, there is often a feeling of embarrassment in talking about it or an uncertainty in how best to respond to people who suffer from it.
During the 11 years I served as a senator for Queensland in federal parliament, I spoke several times about how suffering from depression did not stop me from being effective in that role. Indeed, in some ways I feel the experience of living with depression helped me be more effective in the role.
Certainly there are many cases of political leaders with depression still able to be very successful, most notably people such as John Curtin, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.
Often people with mental illness feel like they are weak or a failure. Pointing to the many people with mental illness who are viewed as “successful” not only reminds people there is no weakness or failure involved in having a mental illness, but that people with mental health issues can often make a uniquely valuable contribution to society.
Not only are they not judgmental and more readily able to empathise, their experiences enable them to have great insights into how to deal with and live with challenging situations. This is not to be dismissive of the valuable help psychologists, counsellors, psychiatrists and other health professionals can provide but the insights and empathy of so-called “everyday people” can be the most helpful of all.
Somewhat ironically, I managed far better at managing my own depression when I was in Parliament than I did subsequently in a far less stressful environment. Last year I reached a stage where I had to admit myself to a psychiatric hospital for a month. Since then I was able to spend about a year regularly attending therapy sessions with two psychologists and eight or nine other people all seeking to better address their mental health issues.
Mental Health Week is the perfect time to highlight that awareness and understanding are very important, but not always sufficient.
Unfortunately our health system is better geared to subsidising medication use rather than treatments such as cognitive or other behavioural therapy. Many people cannot afford the luxury of comprehensive private health insurance and ongoing personal therapy is not so readily covered in the public system.
But, as I indicated at the start of this article, there are now many places where people can turn to in an initial search for help. It is important that embarrassment or fear does not stop people from asking for help. Everyone is unsure about how best to help others, even those of us who have been in a similar place and while professional ongoing help is important over time, just having someone to turn to or someone looking out for you at times of vulnerability is so important.
Dr Richard Seiden, a US researcher on suicide, conducted a study on more than 500 people across more than 30 years who were prevented from attempting suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge. After an average of 26 years later, 94 per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes. The clear conclusion is if you can get a suicidal person through their crisis period, chances are extremely good they won’t kill themself later.
Australia provides our own compelling parallel with “the angel of The Gap”, the late Mr Don Ritchie, who lived near a place in Sydney with a reputation for suicide on a par with the Golden Gate Bridge. He saved at least 160 lives simply by approaching people at the jump spot and asking “Is there something I could do to help you?”
Personally I think that’s a better question than RU OK? but the important thing is the sentiment. Sometimes when you’re feeling low the most annoying question to be asked is “How are you?” But only because you know people usually aren’t wanting a genuine answer. To know there are people who genuinely care about the answer is a very valuable thing, even if you’re embarrassed or unsure about how you’d respond.
Andrew Bartlett is a former Democrats senator for Queensland. He is currently a research fellow with the Migration Law Program at ANU & Convenor of the Queensland Greens.
This article first appeared on The Courier Mail on 11 October, 2013.