More normal than you think

Caitilin Punshon
We all have beliefs about mental illness and those who live with it. Sometimes these beliefs are helpful, but not always. Today is World Mental Health Day. It is a good time to think about mental illness. We are told mental illness is more common than we think. It is also a normal part of life. Anyone can become mentally ill at any stage of life. People living with mental illnesses often feel ashamed. It's up to all of us to make sure they do not have to feel this way.
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Caitilin Punshon on 10/10/2012
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Mental health is everybody's business.

Let's start with a simple fact. We all have a brain. That means every one of us may experience mental illness at some point in our lives. It's not something most people like to think about. But as we are often reminded, mental illness is more common than we think. All of us have beliefs about mental illness and those who live with it. Some of these beliefs might be factual and helpful. Others less so. Regardless of our opinions or experience, mental illness is something we should consider more openly.

World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health Day. The aim of the day is to raise issues relating to mental health worldwide and to promote education, awareness and advocacy. In Australia, World Mental Health Day occurs during Mental Health Week. Numerous events are being held around the country to encourage people to join in the discussion of mental health issues.

One organisation working to build understanding of these issues is the Mental Health Council of Australia (MHCA). As the peak non-government organisation representing the mental health sector, it aspires to achieve better mental health for all Australians. This year, the MHCA has a strong message for World Mental Health Day. That message is whoever you are and wherever you live, you're not alone.

Frank Quinlan is the chief executive officer of the MHCA. What we're really trying to say to people is that mental illness can be experienced by anyone at any stage of life, he says.

And no matter where anyone is on that journey, there's always someone available and some resource available to people who might need some assistance.

Everybody's business

Current statistics suggest one in five people will experience mental illness each year. As many as one in two could do so over the course of a lifetime. If we do not experience mental illness ourselves, chances are we will be close to someone who will.

For this reason, Frank argues mental illness is everybody's business. It is his hope that through becoming more aware of the issues and risks, we are more likely to take steps to nurture our own mental wellbeing. Such things as engaging in physical activity, maintaining meaningful social relationships and seeking support when things get difficult are all helpful.

Equally important, however, is the role we can play in helping others. Much of the anguish and isolation of mental illness is caused by misunderstanding and stigma. It is up to all of us to acknowledge not only that mental illness is more common than we realise, but also to accept it is a normal part of life. It can be difficult to admit this, even for those who are experiencing it.

Reducing the stigma

One person who understands this difficulty is Keith Mahar. His own experience of acute psychosis taught him just how alienating living with a mental illness can be. Yet his current role as a peer support worker in the mental health sector affirms his belief that transformation is possible.

Changing society's views on mental health is a long process, he says. I think one of the most important things that can be done is the ability to actually reduce one's own internalised stigma, because that can be a huge barrier that restricts or impairs one's recovery.

For Keith, the decision to speak out about his experience has been particularly empowering. It's about taking something that was very painful and humiliating in many ways and then turning that into a positive for other people, to try to help other people. In the process of doing that I just found that it stopped having power over me.

Keith insists no one should ever feel compelled to reveal anything they are not comfortable sharing. Nevertheless, both he and Frank note the benefits when people tell their stories of mental illness. The more these stories circulate, the more familiar people will become with the dimensions of the mental illness experience. Hearing these accounts helps break down myths and negative stereotypes. It also allows us to recognise the accomplishments of people who live with mental illness, and can provide crucial hope that treatment, management and even recovery are possible.

Overcoming the loneliness

For as long as people remain ashamed of their own suffering, or hold hard opinions about other people, the distress of mental illness is unnecessarily intensified. That's why today, on World Mental Health Day, consider what mental illness means in your life.

What are your beliefs about yourself and about others? In what ways are you nurturing your own mental health? Most importantly, what are you going to do to ensure that no one experiencing the agonies of mental illness, including yourself, feels inadequate or alone?

Support is available for anyone who may be distressed.

Lifeline – 24 hour telephone counselling – 131 114

Kids Helpline – under 18 years of age – 1800 551 800

Just Ask – rural mental health information – 1300 131 114

Men's Line Australia – 24 hour telephone counselling – 1300 789 978

Salvation Army – 24 hour telephone counselling – 1300 363 622

ReachOut! – website for young people

SANE Helpline – mental illness information, support and referral – 1800 187 263

beyondblue Information Line – information about depression, anxiety and related substance abuse disorders, treatments and help – 1300 224 636

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