In a society that seems happy to put everything else on display, talking openly about mental health still makes people uncomfortable. But let’s face it — mental illness isn’t something that only happens to other people. It can happen to you, and statistically, there’s a good chance it already has.
We’ve become numb to the stats surrounding mental illness in Australia, and maybe that’s the only sane way to process information that distresses us. But the fact is, one in five of us will experience a mental illness this year, and half of us will experience some form of mental illness in our lifetimes.
14 per cent of us will be affected by an anxiety disorder this year. In that same twelve-month period, four per cent of us will experience a major depressive episode, and three per cent of us will have to deal with a psychotic illness like schizophrenia, losing contact with reality in the process.
You might be one of the lucky ones. You might be one of the 50 per cent who never experience mental illness themselves. But it’s virtually impossible that your friends, family members and co-workers will all be so lucky, too.
The reality is that mental illness touches everybody — so why isn’t everybody talking about it?
This week (5-12 October) is Mental Health Week, highlighted by World Mental Health Day on Friday 10 October. This is the week when mental health is forcibly dragged to the forefront of the national agenda, and Brisbane is getting into the spirit with dozens of great events to get people talking. Wouldn’t it be great if that conversation could continue when the week ends?
“It’s extremely important to get conversations happening,” says Steff Fenton from Australian Rotary Health. Steff is the head honcho of National Hat Day, a fundraiser on World Mental Health Day that supports innovative mental health research.
“There’s still a stigma related to [mental illness], and we just want to smash that stigma, really,” Steff continues. “Having a mental health issue should be the same as being diagnosed with some form of physical illness. It’s the same thing. We should be able to talk about it like we’ve been diagnosed with cancer or something like that. You should be able to say, ‘Hey, I have depression’ and get support for it.”
So why can’t you? “People think of it as quite a personal thing,” Steff explains. “You’re talking about the way people feel, so that ties into your emotions and can be quite connected with your personal identity and how people see you. I guess it can be difficult, if you’re feeling things, to talk about that, because it is quite personal.”
“For me,” says Jo Bassett from Open Minds, the coordinator of Mental Health Week in Queensland, “it’s about increasing the conversation around mental illness and mental health issues, getting people talking about it more, and starting to break down the stigma. Once you break down the stigma, there’s a much stronger acceptance.
“In the past, when you were experiencing a mental health issue, there wasn’t a lot of compassion. It was just, ‘Get over it, pull up your socks, try harder’. Often when you’re talking with people who have had a history of mental health issues, there’s still a lot of shame, and a feeling that they need to apologise for that.”
The warning signs
Everybody gets stressed, sad or angry sometimes. So when do these stop being completely normal human emotions, and become cause for alarm?
“Mental health is a continuum,” Jo Bassett says. “We’ve all got it and we can all lose it. That’s where it’s really important to say, okay, what are the signs of stress for you? It may be that you’re not sleeping, that you’re not eating, that you’ve gone into withdrawal and you don’t want to be around people. When you go out, life really loses its sense of colour.
“People will talk about knowing that they should be having a good time, but being incapable of really feeling that. There’s a real blackness and a heavy cloud that starts to descend. Your sleeping, your eating, your motivation to go out and do things — those are some really good early warning signs. What’s your concentration like? Are you able to focus? Are your thoughts jumping around to many things at once?
“There can be physical signs. There could be signs of fatigue. Often when people talk about feeling depressed, they’re talking about feeling very tired and fatigued. It’s interesting — when people experience an anxiety attack for the first time, they may present to the hospital as having a heart attack, because your pulse rate goes up, you become sweaty, your heart beats really quickly, you can experience chest pains… you can experience all the typical signs of a heart attack.
“One of the other things you may notice, particularly for people who are experiencing quite a serious mental illness, is that your self-care might start to fall off. You’re not taking as much care in your appearance, you’re not showering as much, you’re not presenting yourself as you normally would. All of those things just feel too hard when you’re living with mental illness.
“One of the challenges with mental illness is that it can be very insidious. Behaviour starts to change slowly, over time. It’s the people who have known you the longest and know what to look out for who are in the best position to help. Maybe your partner’s not talking to you as much. Maybe your children are spending much more time inside their bedroom. Maybe you’ve invited your colleague out to lunch every day for the past week and they’ve said no every single time, when they used to go out all the time.
“When you notice those changes, what I’ve really been encouraging people to do is actually talk about it — talk about what it is that you’re seeing and you’re noticing. Just say to them, ‘So I noticed you’re not really interested in going out at the moment. What’s going on with that?’”
Nardia Miller from St John’s Ambulance agrees that changes in behaviour are the most obvious signs of mental illness. She cites “when people suddenly become secretive, when they’re not as open, and they’re not as outgoing, as they have been” as red flags.
It may sound obvious, but Nardia says that talking about suicide is also a warning sign of mental illness – and shouldn’t just be written off as a cry for attention. “Look out for things like people saying goodbye, giving away their possessions, giving away things that they care about, things that they’ve always treasured, or saying things like, ‘In case I never see you again, just know that I love you’.
“We look for people who are having suicidal thoughts and behaviours, and non-suicidal self-injuries. People might be cutting themselves, for example. People often cut themselves because it’s a pain they can control. It’s a way of coping. It’s not appropriate, but it’s a level of pain they have control over rather than all of these external influences that they have no control over.”
How you can help yourself
If you think you might have a mental health issue, the first step is the same as most other health issues — you just need to see a GP. It’s nothing to be scared of, and most people will recover fully if they get help early on. Contrary to popular belief, mental illness isn’t usually a life sentence.
“Your GP should be your first port of call,” says Jo Bassett. “I really encourage people to have mental health days off at work, too. If you’re feeling really stressed, take that time off to recharge. It’s like if you had a cold. If you had a cold, you’d take that time off to recover and get well. It’s the same if you’re feeling under a lot of pressure and stress at work.”
While the most important thing to do is to see a doctor and make sure you get the professional help you need, there are little things you can do to relieve stress and pressure and improve your mental health.
“You should never go past the basics,” Jo says. “You need to make sure you’re eating right and sleeping right. You need to get those basics in order, so make sure that you eat well, sleep well, and exercise more. With exercise, that may only be 15 or 20 minutes every day of the week, but you have to make sure you do it.
“And get out of the office! I work with executives, and one of the things I’ll say to them is that you should take a 10 minute break to get out of the office and give yourself what I call a ‘mental health moment’. Give yourself a break and go out and stand in the fresh air and soak in some sunshine, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Then you can come back to the office. So it’s important to build in some breaks for yourself.”
Recovering from mental illness can be a counter-intuitive process. Sometimes, the things you least want to do are the things you most need to do, and the things you think are helping you are actually hurting you.
“You have to reduce your alcohol and your caffeine,” Jo says. “The things that you go and do more of when you’re under stress are really the things that you need to be stepping back from. Swap them for something else. Swap them for a walk. Before you pour that glass of wine when you get home, go for a 15 minute walk.”
“Sometimes when you don’t feel very well emotionally,” Nardia Miller adds, “the hardest thing you can do – because it’s actually what you least feel like – is getting up and going out. It’s really interesting, because exercise releases those feel-good hormones, the seratonins, the dopamines, that we need to bring us back up.
“So even if it’s the last thing you want to do, just getting out and going for that walk for 20 minutes… you might not feel like it, but if you can just get yourself up and get yourself out there, you really will feel better.
“Try smiling, too. It sounds really simple, but the act of smiling actually triggers those feel-good chemicals in the brain as well. So even if you don’t feel like it, just a simple smile will actually make you feel better.”
How you can help others
If someone you know is dealing with a mental illness, one of the most helpful things you can do is pretty simple – just listen to them.
“Having really close friends who may not have experienced mental illness, but can actually sit and listen and provide a shouting board, is important,” says Jo Bassett. “If you’re a friend of somebody and you’re noticing these changes, you can actually offer to go to the doctor with them, or offer to phone another friend for them. Help them pull in their social supports, because often, when you’re starting to slide down that path of depression or anxiety, withdrawal is what you do. You don’t actually reach out.
“It’s important to have other people who will help you build that support network. I think, as friends, we often feel very uncomfortable about doing that. We feel like we’re intruding into somebody else’s life. But if you’ve got that relationship with them, you can actually do that in a way that is not intrusive, and is actually quite supportive.”
St John Ambulance offers a Mental Health First Aid course where participants learn how to support a person experiencing a mental health crisis, and how to identify the early stages of someone developing a mental illness.
“It’s designed to help teach the average member of the community how to approach somebody who may be having a mental health issue,” says Nardia. “We teach them how to assess what kind of issue they might be having, and how to assist. We spend 12 hours teaching people how to look for signs and symptoms of certain conditions. Things like mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety; substance misuse, and what happens when people start using substances as a way to cope; and, of course, psychosis, so when people do have that psychotic break, you can help.”
A number of Mental Health Week events will be held around Brisbane this week in an effort to break down the stigma and taboo surrounding mental health. These are a few of our favourites:
Queensland Mental Health Week Q&A Launch
This free event, held in the Ithaca Room at Brisbane City Hall, will see a panel of experts discuss mental health issues and their impact on the workplace, and practical strategies to create a mentally healthy workplace.
Stand Up For Mental Health
A night of laughter at the Gardens Club (Botanic Gardens, Brisbane City) including songs, improv and stand-up comedy to raise awareness of mental health and funds for the Black Dog Institute. Tickets are $20.
Harmony Place Mental Health Week Celebration
The Church Hall (58 Kadumba St) in Yeronga hosts a free, relaxing Tai Chi session and presentations about the Sierra Leone, Ethiopan and Burmese cultural perceptions of mental health.
Metro North Brisbane Community Resource Expo
As well as art displays, information stalls and interactive sessions, special guest Matthew Mitcham (the Olympic and Commonwealth Games diving champion) will share his story, Twists & Turns: Diving, Drugs & Depression, at this free event at Chermside Library (375 Hamilton Road, Chermside).
Queensland Mental Health Week Achievement Awards
Individuals, groups, organisations and businesses who are dedicated to improving the understanding and awareness of mental health will be honoured at this presentation at City Hall.
Fundraising Event for Suicide Prevention Australia
The Pattern Project, run by two sisters whose mother committed suicide after her bi-polar condition went undiagnosed, raises funds for suicide prevention with a high tea and silent auction at Shucked Cafe (9 Creswell Street, Newstead).
Mental Health Expo
The Zillmere Community Centre (54 Handford Rd, Zillmere) hosts this free celebration of mental health with art works, information stalls, performances from local cultural groups, a free BBQ lunch and fun activities for the whole family.
Enjoy a day of free fun and live entertainment, including family activities, food stalls, rides and health and well-being information stalls, at Musgrave Park (South Brisbane).
Walk For Awareness
The official Grand Finale of Brisbane’s Mental Health Week, the Walk for Awareness is open to everyone, with no required age or fitness level. Gather at Captain Bourke Park in Kangaroo Point (under the Story Bridge) from 7am to register for the scenic 8km walk around Brisbane’s winding river.
For the full list of Mental Health Week events in Brisbane, visit mindclicks.org.au.
Help is at hand
Need help now to treat mental illness? Call the SANE Australia helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263). You can also visit the Lifeline Service Finder and Mindhealthconnect, or talk to your local GP or health professional.
Have you experienced mental health problems? What helps you to pull through? Share your stories in the comments below.