Many people are aware that depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in Australia and globally. What some may not know is that an estimated 65 percent of depressed people do not access any treatment for their depression. The implications of non-treatment are serious. For example, at 24% depression is the leading cause of non-fatal disability in Australia.
This week (5-12 October) is Mental Health Week. Organised to raise community awareness about mental health issues, it runs until this Sunday, 12 October. The aim of the week is to promote social and emotional wellbeing, enhance the coping capacity of individuals, families, and communities and increase mental health recovery.
Having a week dedicated to increasing our awareness of mental health issues is definitely a useful thing to do. Many mental health community groups urge people to be aware of others in their life sphere. We jumped on that bandwagon in last month’s post, encouraging readers to find a few cherished others and tune in deeply to how those others respond when we ask, “RU Okay?”
But heightening our awareness of others’ wellbeing is the Number 2 way to promote mental health. And the Number 1 way? It’s one of those vexing, “simple but not straightfoward” things. The very best way to enhance community mental health is to look after our own individual health. That means regularly asking yourself, “Am I okay?” But to do that, we must be willing to recognise when things aren’t OK; we must we willing to acknowledge that we need help and ask for it.
This might sound simple but not everyone is happy to do this. One British survey reported that over 50 percent of people with identified mental health problems had not asked their general practitioner for help . Similarly, an American study found that 25% of a “neurotic” sample had failed to attend G.P. appointments set up to deal with their mental health issue over the previous year.
The reasons given for non-attendance? You may have heard them before:
- I didn’t think anyone could help
- It’s a problem I should be able to cope with
- I did not think it necessary to consult a doctor
- I thought the problem would get better by itself
- I'm too embarrassed to discuss it with anyone.
These studies point to an ongoing but not always obvious threat to accessing mental health services: the stigma to admitting that we have an issue. Sadly, Australia is no different. A study of 1000 workers found that 4 out of 10 who take sick leave for depression keep it hidden from their employer; nearly half of those feared for their jobs if they disclosed their illness. The study found that Australians were almost twice as likely not to tell their boss they were suffering depression, compared to their European counterparts. The research, which looked just at depression, found Australians on average had taken 14.6 days' sick leave for their last depressive episode, compared to the 35.9 days reported by workers in Europe. Moreover, respondents said that it was a private matter: none of their employer’s business if they were unwell with depression, that the employer would not understand or know how to support them.
Yet mental wellbeing should be an employers' business. SANE’s chief executive, Jack Heath, noted that the cost of mental unwellness to Australia’s businesses now tops $12 billion. Beyond that, it would be illegal for an Australian employer – bound by law to create a psychologically safe workplace – to sack someone because of a mental health issue. Yet, despite the mammoth work SANE and other organisations have done to eliminate it, much stigma about mental illness remains. To tackle workplace stigma, there needs to be more education of managers and staff; corporate leadership must step forward to frame mental health as a workplace health and safety issue.
While it will take dedication, time and resources to change workplace culture, there are things you can do now. Last month we encouraged you to ask others, “R U Okay?” we now ask that you run that question again, asking it this week to the person in the mirror – and don’t rush off right away. Stand there for a moment, taking in all the thoughts and feelings that come bubbling up. If in your heart of hearts, you know there is an issue you want or need to work out, I challenge you to act from a place of integrity and self-respect rather than surrendering to stigma. I challenge you to display the courage that sporting hero and Australian of the Year Adam Goodes did: acknowledge it, first to yourself, then to those who can help you. Goodes even went further, courageously sharing his struggle publicly.
Mental health issues tend to get worse if not treated. You probably can’t change some of your risk factors for mental unwellness but with appropriate treatment, you can change your ways of thinking which should help you to feel a lot better. Beyond that, you are taking a crucial step to reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness, which elevates the mental health of all Australians.