Mental illness or ill-health is not new, but I would suggest its status is one of heightened awareness and growing within our community.
Unfortunately, we often see on the street or on television news and advertising of the dangers of drug addiction and alcohol abuse and many of us quite rightfully or wrongfully shy away. We just don’t want to know. But what of the many cases where people suffering a mental illness turn to such addictions to self-medicate just to ‘escape’?
Mental illness comes in many different guises: depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse, gambling abuse, eating disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and the list goes on. But they are illnesses and like any other illness, need to be understood and treated. If I have diabetes, it needs to be treated; if I have depression, it needs to be treated.
The most recent National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, a community survey of 8,841 people aged 16-85 years of age, living in private dwellings across Australia, found that one in five (20%) had a common mental illness (anxiety, depressive or substance use disorder at some time during the previous 12 months. If this was to be extrapolated out, it would equate to 3.2 million people.
Take the following statistics into consideration:
While the figures above show a stronger lean toward females, bi-polar disorders affect equal numbers of male and female sufferers.
Some years ago, my wife and I took a young female woman under our roof; she had been a school friend of our daughter and we could see her struggling; we just didn’t know what she was struggling with at that time.
Placing ourselves in the role of carers, we quickly learned that we took on significant responsibility with a person with anorexia, depression, mood swings and suicidal thoughts. We got her to see a psychiatrist and I attended many sessions with her. Ultimately, we discovered and foiled her plan to commit suicide in our house; at which time we sought additional professional guidance and I forced her father to become involved.
That young woman is now 29 years of age. She is one of the lucky ones or perhaps better to say, a survivor. The key for us was to get the appropriate professional help that she required.
Of course, suicide can be sadly the end result of many of those suffering and is a significant risk for people with depression. Of Australians aged 16-85 who have had a depressive disorder in the past 12 months, approximately 4 per cent attempt suicide.
As I have already emphasised, mental illnesses need to be treated just as any other illness does. Unfortunately, there is still significant stigma within the community placed on people with mental illness. Some of this comes out of fear; the unknown, the failure to recognise and relate to people with mental health issues or symptoms; and, pure ignorance.
From a societal perspective we all need to do our part in breaking down the walls and removing stigma is a vital step in doing so. Think again of the 20 per cent factor of people with a common mental illness. It could be your work colleague, a member of your family, a loved one or a neighbour. It could be you. Mental ill health does not discriminate, and it does not have a timeline.
Who lives amongst us?
It is not your job to identify someone who may be affected by a mental illness, but awareness of a person that may need help and offering that help is something that ultimately, all of us should consider.
I know that’s a harsh call and not for everyone so don’t be too concerned. Just remember the 20 per cent factor. We could be talking about someone you love and remember such conditions have no timeline; they may appear over the course of a lifetime like a small crack in a wall that has stood the test of time but eventually the crack can widen and the wall may fall.
Some are born with problems; some experience trauma at one stage of their life or another. Others may just suffer from everyday life inducing anxiety and depression.
The question that I have often pondered is that if I was one of the five; the 20 per cent, would I be treated any differently or would colleagues, friends, family or even a stranger, ask me if I was Ok if they saw me struggling.
We may have all participated in the annual RUOK? Day and IPA have been active in its support. The difference in thinking is why we wait for an annual event, like mothers’ and fathers’ and family day, to ask if someone is OK. (Or my personal favourite, please let me sleep-in day - just made that up but please email if I can get strong support – numbers make the difference).
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for RUOK? Day as an awareness builder and we need to keep it going, just as we need to continue to recognise the month of October as World Mental Health Month and its central celebration day, the 10 October as World Mental Health Day. Mental health is indeed a global issue.
The story behind RUOK? here in Australia is quite a sobering and somewhat heart-warming tale.
In 1995, Barry Larkin was far from ok. His suicide left loved ones with endless questions. In 2009, his son Gavin championed a cause to honour his late father by asking just one question, in the hope of protecting families from such circumstances: RUOk?
I doubt if many Australians have not been touched by the RUOK? movement.
The question remains, are we checking each other to see if ‘you are ok?’ If we see signals of concern what are we doing?
As aforementioned, mental illness does not discriminate. Danny Frawley, champion Australian Rules footballer and media commentator died on 9 September 2019 when his car struck a tree, a day after his 56th birthday. Behind the media scenes, Frawley had suffered the highs and lows of mental illness, eventually adding to the suicide toll.
Prior to his death, Danny participated in an advertising campaign, along with other notable celebrities, that focuses on reducing the one in five to zero in five. Danny’s family openly supported it going ahead, postmortem, understanding the crucial message the campaign is to deliver.
There have been many other Australian sports identities in recent years that have been sidelined or have openly come out to speak of their personal turmoil. Yes, mental illness does not discriminate. Often, it is those you would never speculate about from afar; many with high intelligence and creativity.
I am still saddened by the loss of actor and comedian, Robin Williams who committed suicide in August 2014. Williams had battled depression and anxiety for many years. At the time of his death, he also showed early stages of Parkinson’s disease which he was not then ready to share publicly. A coroner’s report determined that Williams had diffuse Lewy body dementia, an umbrella term that includes Parkinson's disease dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies, two dementias characterised by abnormal deposits of the protein alpha-synuclein in the brain.
Robin Williams died at the age of 63; another tragic loss of a troubled genius.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2007 National Survey of Mental Illness and Wellbeing: Summary of Results. (Document 4326.0). Canberra: ABS; 2008.  Johnston AK, Pirkis JE, Burgess PM. Suicidal thoughts and behaviours among Australian adults: findings from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2009; 43; 635-43.