Do we need to stop talking about mental illness?
When I first studied undergraduate psychology twenty years ago, mental illness was still a socially taboo subject. Then working as an employment counsellor 18 years ago, stigma, stereotyping and at times blatant discrimination, was rife. In that time we have seen targeted awareness raising programs in Australia which have helped improve our collective mental health literacy. That is not to pretend there’s not still more to do, that there’s not some people who still hold on to antiquated notions. Some do. But, many people now understand that mental health is an integral part of health. They understand that so many of us will experience mental illness in our lives (1 in 5 of us in a year, and close to half of us in our lifetime). We now hear people talking more openly about mental illness in families, communities and workplaces. However, it is time to stop talking about mental illness and start talking about mental wellbeing.
Our society generally approaches mental health from an illness model. We focus on diagnosis, medicalisation and clinical services. We don’t have enough of these services. For example, Victorian research indicates alarmingly increased levels of young people seeking emergency treatment for mental disorders, with a 46% increase in recent years. There are people in dire need of treatment and care, families who are distressed and isolated and not able to access support. We do not have enough services to meet the current demands. People are dying and it’s not only patients and their families who are struggling. We have many dedicated health professionals working in these systems who are burnt-out and straining to meet the complex needs of their patients in an under resourced system. For some of these professionals, it is to the detriment of their own mental wellbeing.
A recent report from Mental Health Australia and KPMG indicates we have seen increased funding of mental health services, and yet no decrease in the prevalence of mental illness. Rates appear stable. There is no denying that in our communities there are some brilliant services, working positively to enhance the experience of those living with mental health issues and their families. We have community based service providers who work tirelessly with limited resources to help people living with mental illness recover and engage in roles that are meaningful to them. But, this is not enough. If we only focus on either mental illness treatment or on awareness raising, we are missing the opportunity to actually reduce prevalence, to reduce harm, and to save lives now and into the future.
We currently take a Band-Aid approach to address mental illness, dominated by a short-term view of controlling symptoms. Instead we need a revolutionary change to a preventative model. We now know enough about the human and economic costs of staying on the current path. We know about the multitude of risk factors, some of which can be targeted in proactive interventions. We know about some of the effective preventative approaches we can employ. Yet, we limply try to put a plaster on this cavernous need and wonder why the crisis is not healing.
We need to prioritise mental wellbeing.
3 mental health steps for positive change
Here’s three steps we could take immediately to make a positive change:
- Start young. We need to educate our kids about the importance or mental wellbeing – just as we do with food pyramids and the benefits of physical activity. The government has committed some funds to new programs but more needs to be done.
- Business and industry needs to play a part. Employee mental wellbeing needs to become part of the culture and fabric of every Australian workplace.
- Parents and carers need more support and education about mental health and wellbeing.
We need to make this a sexy election issue so it gets properly funded. Although, it’s not even as simple as that. We can’t idly wait for governments to fund proactive mental wellbeing programs. We need to take steps to build mental wellbeing in our workplaces, in our communities, in our families, and most significantly, within ourselves. If we don’t begin focussing on, funding and personally prioritising mental wellbeing, we will never reduce the rates of mental illness.
We need to start today.
Mental Health Australia and KPMG Report: Investing to Save. May 2018
By Tasha Broomhall