Last week, I completed a Mental Health First Aid course here in Perth and it was a real eye opener.
I had no idea that as many as 45% of Australians were found to have suffered a mental illness in their lifetime and one in five said they had experienced some form of mental illness in the past 12 months. The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing is a community survey carried out annually to provide evidence on the prevalence of mental illness in the Australian population, the amount of disability associated with mental disorders, and the use of health services by people with mental disorders.
The number one illness reported in the survey was anxiety, such as social phobia. At number two was depression and in third place was substance use disorder such as alcohol dependency.
I was shocked to learn that over $534 million was spent by the Australian Government on subsidised mental health-related prescriptions during 2017–18 while just over $9 billion was spent on mental health-related services. Yet we know for a fact that there are even more who fly under the radar, suffering in silence. This is especially true for men. The number of people who live in denial, or simply self-medicate with alcohol or other substances, is hard to predict but we all know someone. I, for one, was self-medicating with alcohol for years. In removing the alcohol, I have allowed myself the clarity and the space I needed to get to the root of my anxiety.
An illness like any other
Mental illness isn’t laziness, attention-seeking, bad diet, mental, physical or spiritual weakness or a failure of character. Mental illness is as real as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. During her time as First Lady, Michelle Obama got behind the Mental Health First Aid Act in the US that recognises the need to ‘flip the script’ in how people with mental illness are supported and cared for and was quoted as saying: ‘Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.’
Men and myths
It is apparent, from studies carried out, that many men think depression is a sign of weakness. It doesn’t help that they are told to ‘man up’ from a young age. We need to challenge the myth that being anxious or depressed is something to be ashamed of. There is a belief that seeking support such as therapy carries the stigma of victimhood and the mere thought of this exacerbates the mental illness. Many men with mental illness opt, instead, to suffer in silence. Interestingly, when they present at their GP, they present with unexplained back pain, persistent headaches and digestive issues. Not all GPs have the time to probe the deeper, underlying reasons for these symptoms, instead prescribe medication to treat the physical symptoms. Needless to say, these problems rarely go away until the emotional symptoms are dealt with. Left untreated, the condition can cause anger, irritability and may even lead to escapist behaviours such as working very long hours, pursuing dangerous sports, reckless driving and substance use. This can have a negative impact on their family or working life. It’s no wonder that 75% of all suicides recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2017 alone, were carried out by men. Suicide is the leading cause of death in Australian men aged 15-44 – that’s more than double the national road toll. According to the Global Burden of Disease study conducted by the World Health Organisation, suicide is more common among men than women, the world over.
We know that, in Australia, men are three times more likely to take their own life than women. Perhaps it’s time to admit that the conversation needs to change. We, as women especially, should be encouraging men to look out more for each other. Most men shy away from opening up to women about their feelings because they fear vulnerability. It probably has something to do what I mentioned earlier, an inherent drive to be the strong man and to remain stoic when faced with a crisis. It’s therefore important that they connect with a male friend who will accept them, warts ‘n all, and will actively listen to what’s going on for them. By talking about our struggles, we discover we are not alone, and we find support. Even if we don’t believe there is a need to be concerned about the men in our own lives, it is still important to talk about mental illness as a reality for others and to understand how we can help. The men in our lives may one day have to offer support and encouragement to someone they know.
Don’t bother about the socks
Let’s be frank here. Mental illness is as prevalent a disease as cancer or cardio-vascular conditions. So why do we still struggle to talk openly about it?
Some people feel guilty for feeling down when they know that there are other people dealing with bigger challenges in their lives. Mental illness isn’t always as obvious as a deep cut on an arm. It’s still commonplace to hear people say: ‘Pull your socks up. You have so much to be grateful for.’ From my training, I know that this is in the top three things NOT to say to someone who is grappling with mental illness. Fear of being judged is another big one. Non-judgemental support is key to ensure a person feels safe about opening up. What people who struggle with mental illness need more than anything else is to be listened to, to have their feelings validated, to know that it’s not uncommon to feel this way and to be supported.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)
It’s encouraging to know that more and more workplaces are discovering the value in appointing skilled individuals to provide mental health first aid. Eventually it will be commonplace.
If your workplace hasn’t yet taken this on board, then perhaps you might consider having the conversation with your HR department. It’s a positive way to demonstrate that your organisation cares about individual well-being. MHFA Officers are trained to provide initial informal support to other employees in the workplace, outside of Human Resources and Workplace Health & Safety departments. They can complement formal support services, like Employee Assistance Programs. I would strongly recommend that all workplaces take this seriously. The benefits to both the employee and the employer will be reflected in the success of the organisation.
If you, or anyone you know, needs to talk to someone about any of the issues raised in this blog, here is a list of places that can offer support:
- Beyond Blue www.beyondblue.org.au, tel: 1300 22 4636
- Lifeline Australia. www.lifeline.org.au, tel: 13 11 14
- Mensline www.mensline.org.au tel: 1300 78 99 78
- Samaritans tel: 116 123
- yourmentalhealth.ie tel: 1800 111 888
- Samaritans tel: 1800 221 4444
- SANELine tel: 0300 304 7000
- National Alliance on Mental Illness tel: 1-800 950 6264
Thanks for taking the time to read my ponderings this week. Please share with anyone you think might benefit from it.