Depression ain’t the only mental illness in town

This week I had a blog published on The Punch. It was my realisation of how we see mental illness after spending a year working on mindshare. If you missed it, here it is. 

One in five is a ratio that gets bandied around a lot when we talk about mental illness. It refers to a fifth of our population who experience it within a 12-month period.

When you stack that up it means almost half us between 16 and 85 encounter some kind of a mental disorder within our lifetime.

With those kinds of numbers it is impossible not to be touched by it in some way. It may not be obvious. It may be as subtle as the depressed friend who took stress leave from work or that drunk relative hiding something deeper.

Luckily we are more educated these days about what is really going on and thanks to organisations like Beyond Blue, we feel a wee bit better about talking about it. They have done a fantastic job in making it OK to talk about depression and anxiety. And with an annual turnover of $28m you can understand why.

Sadly though, NGOs working with the rest of the ‘one-in-fivers’ have a fraction of that amount, yet they are attempting to do the same. With far less money they are trying to make bipolar and schizophrenic disorders just as accessible. Admittedly they are dealing with a smaller population but the stigma they are battling is far greater.

It goes without saying these illnesses don’t have the same celebrity clout. If someone says they have a bipolar or schizophrenic disorder we still think they are axe wielding maniacs hell bent on creating havoc. This is not helped with news agencies happily writing endless profiles on people with depression but only portraying negative stories about any other mental illness.

With the cost of mental illness to our health system being estimated at $3bn we really cannot afford to be so selective. Realising this, the Scots and Kiwis have been bold with campaigns that challenge these stereotypes. And both countries reported an obvious decrease in the negative attitudes associated with mental disorders.

While we have not yet adopted a national campaign, Queensland is leading the way with the recent Change Our Minds. Its aim is to question our perceptions of mental health and encourage us to accept our friends and colleagues touched by the illness.

Recently I worked with the Mental Health Coalition of SA on a website that aims to debunk the myths behind mental illness. Full of information it gave those living with an illness, and their supporters, the opportunity to share their stories in whatever artform they chose. Our aim was to reduce the stigma associated with their illness, no matter what it was.

It was during this work I collaborated with a range of people living with all types of mental illnesses. What I found is no matter what their diagnosis, they may never be free of the symptoms but with good support and treatments can build solid lives for themselves.

Being seen as valued members of our community is a huge part of their recovery. However since some of their illnesses do not have a swag of celebrities or politicians speaking out about it, they don’t feel like they can either.

Until we change that they will continue to suffer in silence.

So next time you hear about ‘one in five’ Australians being diagnosed with a mental illness, spare a thought for those who need a bit more help to get out of bed in the morning and face our stigma.

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