Registered Psychologist at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre
Last week I was moved and inspired by the fragility and honesty shown by Australian VJ Ruby Rose in her public Facebook message about her ongoing battle with depression. Ruby’s story has been very public and her vocalism on subjects such as bullying, depression, gay and lesbian rights and surviving childhood trauma has been, still is, admirable and a source of inspiration to thousands of young people. What I most admire about her message however, is the way she talks about her illness as an illness. There is anticipated recovery and improvement just like there would be from the flu or an asthma attack. It goes to the very heart of how she views mental illness. The statement itself is, I believe, an indication of an evolution, dare I say revolution, in the way we are beginning to talk about mental health issues.
There is no doubt that those diagnosed and/or living with with a mental health issue experience stigma and challenge, we are not there yet. According to statistics from the National Mental Health Consumer and Carer Forum (www.nmhccf.org.au) people with a mental illness are among the most disadvantaged in Australian society. The severity and longevity of disadvantage very much depends on the condition. Social and economic hardship can be fleeting or a lifetime reality as people become vulnerable to isolation and discrimination at the hands of their families, communities and at times employers due to a lack of understanding of what living with mental illness means. Misconceptions are often perpetuated by the media and community jungle drums that favour sensational stories that end in tragedy and misery but do nothing to show us that people with mental health issues can live functional and fulfilled lives, and they can recover. The media portrays mental illness in a predominantly negative light e.g.in February this year over 90% of Australian media coverage of mental health issues was negatively reported (SANE StigmaWatch).
1 in 5 of us WILL suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives (see www.oneinfive.com.au). Those statistics are real and have real people and lives behind them. Most people have many more than 4 other people that live, love and work close to them so even if you are in denial that it could ever be YOU then it WILL be someone close to you. Wouldn’t it be a great achievement if 5 out of 5 people were educated about mental illness and no longer felt afraid of talking about it openly or helping a loved one deal with it? Significant others, friends, family members, colleagues, who could be life changers often feel disabled and disempowered due to a lack of knowledge and understanding. We’ve all offered the consolatory, ‘let me know if you need anything’ to friends, after all, most of us are well intentioned people. However, the bit we don’t often remember is that our friends and family who are in crisis or, less sensationally, normalising what you can see is not normal behaviour or coping, then we need to step in without having to be asked. Here are some things to consider (they are not age specific):
TAKE IT SERIOUSLY – You think there’s a problem. Don’t tell them to get over it or presume they are attention seeking. If you notice something that is out of the ordinary for them or a pattern emerging that is out of character share your concern with them. Ask them if they are alright, really. And ask them again until you are satisfied. If you suspect they are not alright then don’t leave it at that. Don’t be aggressive and diagnose them, they may not be ready to admit there’s a problem, perhaps suggesting you both run it past someone else is a logical first step. This also shares the burden so you are no longer feel alone. Let them know it’s OK to talk about it, you are not judging them.
COMMUNICATION – Be persistent. Let them know you are thinking of them, call and drop by – don’t wait for an invitation. Continue to ask them over and suggest outings, even if just for short walks. Depression and anxiety love to stay at home. Be a good listener. Acknowledge things are tough but still be realistically positive and hopeful, things don’t have to be like this forever but right now you can see it sucks. Timing is crucial, don’t push someone to talk if they don’t want to but be ready to stay for awhile if they need you. Give them some helpline numbers they can chat to when you are not there. Often there is no answer to the ‘why’ question, so if it’s not immediately obvious leave it up to the professionals to work this out. You need to make the person feel supported and accepted, assured that you will not abandon them in tough times.
PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT – Many sufferers find seeking help difficult, it means acknowledging there is an issue and it is too big for them to deal with. You can be the person who does the research, finds the right professional, makes appointments, sends reminders. You can facilitate the process without being overbearing. Remember, there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to treatment or treating professionals. Personally, I love to meet my clients’ support team. I ask about them all the time in session and since we have the same objective it may be useful to offer to go along to some appointments. You don’t have to go in but waiting in the lounge area is always a mark of respect and support that I admire.
SELF CARE – you need to look after yourself first and your friend/loved one second. It’s like the air masks on the aeroplane, you can’t help someone if you are struggling yourself. If you have been through a similar situation, don’t presume it’s the same and don’t presume what worked for you will work for them, infact don’t presume anything. You also need to set boundaries. Some conditions are unpredictable and manipulative and may be around for a long time to test your limits. You need to be clear with yourself about what you are able to offer in terms of availability. Getting a group of like minded friends/family members together can help in this. Have someone who you yourself can talk to when things get difficult and you are emotionally challenged.
EDUCATE YOURSELF – You are not a professional (although maybe you are!) but living closely to someone with a mental health issue does make you an expert. An expert in how it effects them. You may need to learn about medications, strategies, warning signs, relapse prevention depending on what you are dealing with. There are lots of support sites and forums out there to connect with people who are walking the same path as you. It helps to know that you are not the first and not alone.
BE THERE – when you can. Don’t make promises that are unrealistic and you can’t keep. Having a safety plan for crises can be helpful and this should be negotiated with a mental health professional if your friend is suicidal or in crisis. Not everyone is equipped to be able to deal with mental illness as well as the next person. Just like my knees go to jelly when I see a child’s wobbly tooth, (I would make a terrible school nurse!); some people find it difficult to be proactive in support. Having said this, we all have a RESPONSIBILITY to treat people with respect, help if and where we can, give them space and support from afar if we can’t. We can’t afford to ignore problems or think they happen to other people. According to the World Health Authority the burden of mental health disorders is set to rise significantly over the next 20 years. The effects on family, friends and caregivers cannot be underestimated. The first step in reducing stigma and discrimination in order to increase helpseeking and support services is to educate our communities to be helpful and supportive rather than judgemental and powerless.
And to you Ruby Rose I say, thank you for once again raising awareness of such an important issue. I wish you well on your journey to wellness.
Hazel is a Registered Psychologist who works at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre. If you would like to talk to Hazel about someone you are concerned about or receive some support yourself you can contact her here.