Sunday, October 16, 2016

Mental Health Week: A List for Change

This past week in Australia has been Mental Health Week. There have been some wonderful outcomes demonstrated this week; from researchers showcasing breakthroughs in understanding complex mental illness to recognition of advocacy groups,  however it's also been made very clear that there is a still a big problem around mental health. Too few of us admit when we are mentally unwell and too few of us know that it is a common.  

Until  attitudes change, until we change as a society how we treat those with mental illness, no initiative will be truly successful. People will continue to suffer in silence. People will continue to feel like their illness is not valid and will struggle. This is unwarranted and unacceptable when for many, treatment exists and could mean the difference between life and death.

As Mental Health Week comes to a close, it's important we remind ourselves that this issue is far more than hashtags. This is a major health issue that has far too many stigmas and stereotypes attached to it.  There are unfortunately only so many dollars that can go around, and thus we need to enact the changes ourselves as a community, and not over rely on already stretched resources and ignorant governments who cut funding. A little change by many individuals adds up to massive  collective shift in a society. 

While Mental Health Week has done much to raise awareness, it is up to us to continue the change the other 51 weeks of the year.  So with the end of Mental Health Week here, it's a good time to list some things I feel need to be shared in relation to mental health: 

  1. Mental illness is legitimate and real
  2. Mental illness is common (1/5 will suffer a mental illness in their lifetime)
  3. Most people with mental illness have jobs, families, dress neatly and have nice. It is not unusual to be 'high functioning'. Sometimes the highest functioning people are in fact, the most ill.
  4. Mental illness requires the expertise of medical doctors and allied health professionals who work in evidence based practice. Homeopathy, alternative medicine and natural supplements are not evidence based - in fact some can be dangerous to those taking certain medications associated with treatment of mental illness. Don't recommend them despite what you have read on the internet.
  5. Please do not refer to those with schizophrenia as 'schizophrenics' or those with depression as 'depressives' . We don't refer to people as 'broken boned' or 'the infected' when talking to someone diagnosed with a physical illness. People are not defined by an ailment, they are person suffering an ailment.  Mental illness is not the definition of a person, it is a condition a person has.
  6. The stereotype of the deranged and deluded is not a defining feature of mental illness. It is rare and if someone admits to you they are mentally ill, you have no reason to be afraid for your life. Part of the reason people don't say they are mentally ill is the stigma and fear  of being labelled as 'insane' or 'crazy'. In order to talk about it more and see improvements and support we need to stop this immediate judgement and fear.
  7. Someone can recover from mental illness. Just like you can heal from a physical disease with the right treatment.
  8. Going for a walk in nature will help cure a bad mood or feeling low. It will not cure depressive disorder. There is a big difference between feeling depressed and suffering with major depressive disorder.  Please stop spreading simplistic memes, they do nothing but guilt those who are suffering.
  9. Related to the previous point: OCD is not being 'neat', it is debilitating condition and is far more complex than the stereotype of an overly tidy person. You do not have OCD if you have a neat house, you have OCD when cannot leave the house without scrubbing your hands raw or doing some other kind of time-consuming, life-interrupting ritual because you have an irrational fear. OCD can be life-destroying. Please stop spreading these phrases and memes, as they invalidate the true nature of this awful condition.
  10. If someone advises they are taking medication, you are not qualified to comment on the validity of that medication. Unless you are the board registered psychiatrist  treating that person.
  11. NEVER and I repeat NEVER, advise someone to stop taking their medication. I don't care what you have read on the internet or what book you have read, advising this can be incredibly dangerous. If someone tells you they are having side effects get them to a qualified medical doctor IMMEDIATELY.
  12. If someone confides in you that they have or have had a mental illness, do not judge. Support them. They are still the same great person you know, they are not 'crazy' or 'insane'. Don't gossip about their condition. They won't go mad and bring an axe to work and kill everyone. They probably think you care for them and need a little support. Gossiping, fear mongering and spreading nonsense based on stereotypes is the exact opposite of a caring person. If you have questions, ask them. If you need further information, check out the great websites I've listed below or talk to a medical professional.
  13. If someone comes to you and advises they are struggling, think they  have a mental disorder or are having severely negative thoughts, assist them to seek professional help. Most of us are not trained in the best procedures for mental health treatment, just as many of us aren't trained to perform surgery to keep someone alive in the event of organ trauma.
  14. Think about  your responses. Think about whether you are being dismissive. Think about how you would respond to a fellow human if they tell you they're struggling. If you are responding in a dismissive way or inciting guilt, ask yourself, would you dismiss someone who was bleeding or who had just broken a leg? If you answer yes, please keep these views to yourself and refer that person to one of the great resources below.

And with that rather strongly worded list, as I say farewell to a big week of initiatives and awareness,  I implore you - think about what you say and do in relation to mental illness. We all must ensure we don't stop at the hashtags. We all need to address the ingrained notions and the stereotypes with a passion to overturn them. We need to change our own perceptions around mental illness and act for the change. It begins with support not judgement between individuals. Only then can awareness have its true impact. 

Some excellent resources if you or anyone else is struggling is in need of support or would like to learn more:

Lifeline Crisis line: 13 11 14

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