I was 18 years old the first time someone I knew committed suicide. She attended a neighbouring high school. We were both in year 12, about to take our final HSC exams and she decided it was all too much. I remember going to her Facebook profile and scrolling through post after post dedicated to this seemingly happy, beautiful girl who was no longer with us. I was young and carefree. People my age weren’t supposed to die. The concept that someone would willingly choose to end their life was something I couldn’t fathom.
Until I found myself entertaining the same thoughts.
My personal journey
I’ve been clinically diagnosed with anxiety and depression for six years now. At the peak of my mental health struggles, I wished I could cease to exist. I never fell so deep into my depression to try to follow through on that desire, but I can certainly see how someone could.
The beginning of 2016 was smooth sailing, or so I thought. It seemed that my coping mechanism for dealing with my anxiety and panic attacks was working. But it wasn’t. I was just putting a Band-Aid on something that needed stitches. By the time I addressed it, I needed surgery.
Midway through the year I broke down. My mental health spiralled into depression. I became desperate for love, desperate to be told that my life was worth living, because I certainly didn’t feel that way. I had suicidal ideations. It was a painful time.
And that’s when I went to see a psychologist.
It was difficult at first. I desperately needed help but I felt that by asking for help I had failed, that I wasn’t strong enough to cope on my own. I quickly learned otherwise. When faced with challenging times, it’s more important than ever to reach out for genuine support.
What is mental illness?
At this point, it may be beneficial to define mental illness. According to the Australian Department of Health, “mental illness is a health problem that significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people. It is diagnosed according to standardised criteria. The term mental disorder is also used to refer to these health problems.”
Understanding mental illness
I understand why it is so difficult for people who do not have mental illness or a mental disorder to grasp the concept. The solutions to mental illness seem obvious and easy to someone who hasn’t experienced it. “Are you depressed? Do things that make you happy!” “Anxious? Just chill out, learn how to relax.” I’ve heard all these responses from good friends when I’ve been going through a tough time. And while it might be the way they show their genuine care, the solutions are rarely that simple. It’s easy to blame the person experiencing mental illness for their situation. Unlike physical illness where we can often see the cause of the injury, without a proper understanding of mental health disorders, we blame people for their mental illness.
“Why don’t they just snap out of it?” or “Stop being so negative” are sentiments shared by people who don’t understand mental illness. But just like physical illness can lead to death if untreated, so too can mental illness.
While suicide is a taboo topic for most, it is a very real problem. And while death of any kind is upsetting, the truly devastating part about suicide is that it is preventable.
The impact of mental illness
More than three million Australians are living with anxiety or depression. Over 65,000 Australians make a suicide attempt each year. Nine Australians die every day by suicide–that’s more than double the road toll. Indeed, 75 per cent of people who take their own life are male. New Zealand has the highest rate of youth suicide in the world and data from 2018/19 financial year shows 685 suspected suicides. But unlike car accidents, we have the power to change these overwhelming statistics. And it starts by acknowledging mental illness, understanding it and working to remove the debilitating stigma. So what can we do?
We need a culture shift
We need to start treating mental illness the same way we treat physical illness. Just like we visit the doctor when we have broken a bone, it is important to seek help when experiencing mental illness. But currently, there is a stigma attached to having a mental illness which makes people hesitant to speak up and seek help. People with mental health problems say that the social stigma attached to mental ill health and the discrimination they experience can make their difficulties worse and make it harder to recover. Further, embarrassment associated with accessing mental health services is one of the many barriers that cause people to hide their symptoms and to prevent them from getting necessary treatment for their mental illness symptoms. Research suggests that only 20 per cent of adults suffering with mental illness see a mental health provider. We need to tear down the idea that asking for help is a sign of weakness. This is especially a barrier for men, who feel like they should be “tough enough” to get through. In reality, asking for help takes a world of courage. We need to acknowledge that mental illness is real, it exists, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Expecting anyone to shoulder that alone is destructive, and the price much too high.
Stop blaming those affected
The words “anxiety”, “depression”, and “psychologist” should not make us cringe. In fact, seeing a psychologist was the best decision I made. She allowed me to see reason, to begin to think of my life as a work in progress rather than a failed finished product. I learned positive coping mechanisms so I could begin to re-train my brain. Crucially, I was prescribed anti-depressants to help my brain when my best reasoning attempts weren’t cutting it.
Slowly, I began to love and accept myself. And in the depths of my darkest hours, I promised myself that if I ever made it to a place where I could speak about my journey publicly, then I would.
Ever since, I have been sharing openly about my journey with mental health. It probably comes as no surprise that since then, 2020 challenged me most. I had to start back on my anti-depressants that I had previously tried to wean off, and my productivity working from home was shot to pieces. I was back seeing my psychologist regularly trying to figure out why nothing was bringing me joy and I couldn’t stop crying (typical depression symptoms). The social isolation deeply impacted me in a variety of ways. And I shared the whole journey on social media.
Not for sympathy or accolades of “being brave”. But because it’s the sort of conversation I wish was commonplace. It’s the sort of conversation I wish I had seen happening around me the first time my mental health spiralled.
Mental illness is a health condition that needs treatment in the same way that physical illness needs treatment. As such, mental health care in Australia has a framework: there are Medicare-subsidised services and subsidised mental health prescriptions under the PBS and Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Fighting mental illness is not simply about willpower or strength or determination. The mentality that someone needs to “toughen up” is not constructive, productive, or useful. Rather, we need to approach the illness and those affected by it with love, compassion, empathy and understanding.
R U OK Day
Thursday 9th of September is “R U OK?” Day in Australia. It’s a national day to remind us that every day is a good day to ask, “Are you OK?” Some people are very good at hiding what’s really going on, and many people won’t be inclined to offer up information. But if asked, they may be more inclined to share their struggles.
I would encourage everyone to do their own mental health check and seek professional help if needed. And more than anything, I encourage you to be part of a culture shift. To start normalising having regular meaningful conversations around mental health and checking in with those around you. By working together to normalise asking this important question, “R U OK?” to a friend or family member, you can make a real difference.
To learn more about anxiety, depression, and suicide, check out Beyond Blue at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/, or call them on 1300 22 4636. For crisis support or suicide prevention, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Ashley Stanton lives in Sydney, where she works for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in the communication and marketing team.