"The only reason I'm able to share my experiences with mental illness is that I do so with little risk." Photo: Stocksy
A few days ago, I read an article by journalist James Adonis called 'Mental illness: who's faking it?' . The author talked about mental illness "fakers", and how much they're costing businesses. It was a confronting and dehumanising piece of writing (which Adonis has since apologised for), and I cried while I read it and then posted photos of myself because that's the kind of personality I have.
In one photo, I'm happy because I'm going to dinner with friends. In the other, I'm crying because I read an article about mental illness fakery. In both of them, I'm depressed and anxious.
People told me I was "brave". You're so brave, they said, for being honest and out there about your mental illness. It's so brave of you to lay it down like that, to stand up against stigma and discrimination.
What a load of crap. I didn't share these photos because I'm brave. I shared them because I'm privileged.
The only reason I'm able to share my experiences with mental illness is that I do so with little risk. I have a family who love and support me with full awareness of my illnesses. I'm self-employed in a dual-income household. I will not be out on the street, I will not be broke and I will not be ostracised by the people I love. I'm already ahead of the mental health game before I even start. I am a white, educated and middle-class person living in a capital city, and that means I have a loud voice.
The system is not set up to support people outside of this model. In fact, it begets mental crises in at-risk people and groups. The barriers to seeking treatment are immense and often insurmountable. To seek treatment is to confront stigma head-on, and for many people that can mean shame, fear, financial distress, exclusion and discrimination.
About a quarter of the Australian population experiences a mental health concern in a given year, but Mindframe reports that only 35 per cent of those people will use a health service. Men are far less likely than women to seek professional support. Many regional and rural areas simply don't have services, while others are prohibitively expensive for most. Young Indigenous men in the Kimberley region have one of the highest rates of suicide of any group in the world. Even if they wanted to seek treatment, they couldn't. Bully for them. Maybe then they lose their job, their family. And so the cycle continues.
This doesn't happen because people with mental illnesses need the services less. It doesn't happen because people with mental illnesses don't want to be well, or because they have nothing to contribute. It happens because the system is broken. The article James Adonis wrote didn't so much highlight his individual ignorance, but hold a mirror to the way the system fails. After receiving widespread criticism on social media, Adonis updated the piece with a note acknowledging the insensitive nature of his story. I'm glad he learned something from this experience, but I'm also not surprised he did. The opportunities to speak out about mental illness are few. Conversation happens in euphemisms behind frosted glass, if it happens at all.
Despite awareness days and morning teas and growing moustaches, we still lack a very basic understanding of how to support a person who has a mental illness. The misconceptions about people suffering with mental illness are vast: they cost money, they waste time, they're lazy, they want to slack off, they're unreliable, they're lesser. In reality, most Australian people who have a mental illness have one that's low-level, with good potential for recovery, and they want to work, given the opportunity. What happens in organisations is a microcosm of what's happening broadly. We are not empathetic. We are not rational and reasonable and kind. We still think of mental illness as a burden.
And maybe it is, right now. Maybe the health care system is burdened by mental illness. Maybe organisations are bleeding money on "mental health days". Maybe the government is bowing under the weight of more and more and more cases of grey matter dysfunction. But that is an issue of branding, not resource. It's about understanding what needs to change in perception of mental health support. It's about lightening the load on the public health care system by implementing better policies in workplaces and schools and governments. If a person with a low-level illness has support in their work and home and social life, their need for health services will be lessened over time. We're still chucking people at the system and then shouting at the system because it's broken.
Years ago, I told my employer about my illness for the first time. I'm nervous always anyway (hello Generalised Anxiety Disorder!), but that day I thought I would actually die. Dead, there on the floor of the HR manager's office, probably with bad undies on. "I have anxiety," I said, and then I said, "I mean really bad anxiety. Actually, I feel like I might die right now."
I didn't die. I was lucky - nearly a decade ago I managed to fluke my way into a business that wanted to support mental illness. It hadn't occurred to me that I could be unwell and valuable at the same time. That was the HR manager's suggestion. She was pragmatic, against all odds. We talked about how I could continue to be productive without compromising my health. We came up with an actual plan and put it in place and I was empowered by it, not minimised. I was more productive, not less.
Dumb luck, too, that I am privileged enough to share this with you. Middle-class, white, educated. I have better access to mental health support than 99.9% of the world population. I'm not brave. I'm shouting.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is a Melbourne-based writer and mental health advocate. Her debut novel will be published in June.
If you, or someone you know, needs help please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24 hour support, 7 days a week.