A frank chat about mental illness


Melting brain under blue skyIt's a warm evening and I'm in an inner city beer garden with friends. There is talking and laughter. Someone offers to go to the bar, starts taking orders from the group. One asks for rum and coke.

'Ugh,' shudders an old friend sitting next to me. 'I hate rum.'

The conversation bubbles up around us, but I follow the undercurrent of his mood.

'Why?' I ask.

'My mum drank rum. She was an alcoholic.'

Laughter rattles through the softening air; someone's cracked a joke at the other end of the table. Suddenly, I feel very light.

I put a hand on his shoulder.

'Really?' I ask, smiling. 'So was mine.'

He looks at me. A split second of relieved recognition passes between us, each one thinking, Maybe I'm not a solitary, incomprehensible person. Maybe someone gets this.

When my turn comes, I order a gin and tonic. Everyone knows I don't drink beer. I tell them it's because I don't like it, not because it's what my father used to drink before, during, and after he beat my mother.

How do you tell people that in the course of normal conversation? Despite my friend's brave example, I still haven't found a way. So I lie.

What I can tell you, though, and with certainty, is that mental illness begets mental illness. One glance at the reportage on the Royal Commission into child sex abuse proves that. There are a number of events and campaigns in Australia that aim to raise awareness of mental illness, probably the most notable of which was celebrated last month during 'Movember', a campaign that is all about 'having fun, and doing it for a serious cause'.

Raising public awareness is essential, but if we are to bring mental health out of the closet in a meaningful way, we'll have to start talking more honestly. That means dropping the vernacular of the web's reprehensible pop-psychology pieces and positive thinking propaganda, going beyond fun/serious causes, and using our own hard-won, unedited and ultimately ugly words to tell the truth.

If three million Australians live just with depression or anxiety, all of us must be affected by mental illness at some time, in some way. Still the stigma around issues as common as addiction and post-natal depression and domestic violence curbs our willingness to talk honestly either as sufferers, or people who are close to them.

We won't discuss loved ones' mental health because to do so feels like a betrayal. But we suffer, too. The ill person has us to lean on, but unless we talk, we suffer alone.

We won't talk about our own mental health because, like the great and, oh, occasionally suicidal Stephen Fry, we're too busy asking, 'What the fuck right do I have to be lonely, unhappy, or forlorn?'

The answer to that particular question is simple.

Ill heath is not a right. Suffering is not indulgence. If you're telling yourself that, shut the hell up.

Then, start talking the truth — and asking for it.

Georgina Laidlaw headshotGeorgina Laidlaw has more than ten years' experience writing and editing, and has a particular interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.

Melting brain image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Georgina Laidlaw, Movember, alcohol



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Existing comments

Love it Georgina. I just so appreciate straight talkers. One thing that has astounded me and continues to do so is that so, so often, when mental illness is discussed, even on great programs such as SBS' Insight, it's as if mental illness just falls out of the sky and lands on people; no previous or possible causes discussed. I am glad you made the connection between your article subject and the Royal Commission: a sad byproduct of abuse, neglect, trauma is mental illness. But I also love what one abuse victim said once: It's not so much us that have mental illness but those who caused it, and those who refuse to acknowledge its existence. SO often our attention is focused on the 'poor and powerless' when it is often the 'rich and powerful' that cause so much suffering and crime and commit their own to boot. No doubt there are many 'causes' but, I believe a really good place to start would be child-rearing and the role of child-hood traumas, no matter what class you are form. It's amazing how few make the connection. Here's a brilliant video that might get a few people thinking. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbiq2-ukfhM
Stephen | 05 December 2013

Very frank, Georgina! We have to make lots of choices as we journey through life. And one thing I've learned is that there are also lots of paradoxes. I think it's important to note that people are different - some are reserved, some are outspoken, and some are a combination. Talking about mental health issues, whether personal or about someone close to us, often takes a leap of faith. And many don't want to fall flat on their face. Again. Finding one person to trust may be an answer for some. Truthfully, though, 10 out of 10 for a bold reflection.
Pam | 05 December 2013

Pam, agreed. It's an enormous leap of faith, especially in an environment like ours where media-sanctioned mental illness garners a kind of polite respect, but personal experiences with mental illness still cannot be discussed. This article's an interesting case in point: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/family/2013/11/families_dealing_with_mental_illness_need_support_too.html
Georgina | 05 December 2013

While we may like to be aware that the causes of our malaise are genetic or environmental, the time comes when we need care and treatment and are able to access professional services. In the meantime someone to talk to and who does not shy away from asking the right questions and providing or initiating support can be of vital help . Maybe we can journey with a person suffering with long term depression and anxiety?Maybe we can listen deeply and gently to the pain? If there are three million people suffering from anxiety and depression surely we come in contact with some of these people in our daily lives.Maybe we could meet them from the pit of our own needs and give time and compassion in an ongoing way. ....Maybe as Georgina mentioned we can all be helped by sharing and deeply listening to each other.
Celia of Richmond | 06 December 2013

I have just had the pleasure of a 2 week stint in a NSW Mental Health facility……one word APPALLING!! I have worked for NSW Health for 35 years in Mental Health seen the good the bad and the ugly. Let me tell you nothing has changed in fact it has got worse. I have resigned and demanded a full investigation into NSW Mental Health services or I am going on 60 minutes,Four Corners and Today Tonight,
Pam Harper | 06 December 2013

A brave and forthright article, Georgina. Obviously genetics and environment play key roles in the way mental illness manifests. The environmental role, where families or institutions engender and perpetuate it, lies I think in society's "too hard" basket because to truly face up to the enormity and consequences of that situation would seem like opening Pandora's Box. Paradoxically, as in the myth, after all the bad things which might come out, there would be Hope at the bottom. I think you may have just fired a shot in the fight to normalise the discussion of mental illness.
Edward F | 06 December 2013

Fantastic article. I often read these articles but this is the first one I've commented on. Thank you.
Sue | 06 December 2013

I am so grateful for this article. So many people suffer from mental health issues, and so many blame them for it. Get out of it and get on with it! - this is not the answer. Perhaps sometimes we should celebrate the frailties, the sensitivities, and the tears of the sad and lonely, rather than look up to the hardness and thestrenght of the hero. I was told the greatest courage was to live on, rather than give in. We must celebrate every tiny step of, and offer support to, those who suffer. It is also not enough to talk about mental illness, we must find the way to speak with compassion for the demons that confront us. We all have some sort of mental issue, only some manage better than others.
Eveline Goy | 06 December 2013

Thanks, Georgina. I agree with the statement, that mental illness may beget mental illness. But research offers trauma as a major cause Trauma results from the strength abusing frailty. It has a chosen continuum from ill will to evil. A nun I know told me priests abusing children are ill. Not so. A wonderful conference was held in Melbourne 2 weeks ago, "The World Hearing Voices Congress". 650 from here and overseas heard, from psychiatrists, mental health nurses, social workers, psychologists and mental health advocates, many of these once classified as seriously mentally ill, who now teach others how to manage their voices and learn to live a normal life. A mantra of those 3 days was "Don't ask, what was your diagnosis, ask 'What happened to you?'. The consensus of experts, expanding this therapy for decades, is that trauma is the cause of serious mental illness, particularly of those who hear disturbing voices. As people learn how to respond to and manage their voices, lives are enriched, those seeing only despair, death are now missionaries, spreading the message for all seriously mentally ill. Georgia, sorry, I've wandered from your thesis, but this Convention was ignored by all media. It must become known.
Caroline Storm | 06 December 2013

Mental illnesses (I use the plural advisedly) are above all, illnesses and should be recognised as such. They won't be while we talk about "mental health issues" or "recovery principles". Evidence shows that for most people with the most serious of the illnesses recovery is unlikely. I have been close to people with mental illnesses since 1959. Despite the money spent and the litany of plans in recent years, there has been little or no improvement in respect for people, in treatment or in outcomes.
Sheelah Egan | 06 December 2013

I walked into a bar with my sisters and my heart jumped into my mouth; this was like a Hogarth etching, adults pissed and lecherous, and children sitting there in moral quagmire with loud juke box. This was childhood. I had to walk out to breathe. When I'm bi-polar low I can't detatch - I have to tell people in the street they need to stop shouting and hitting their kids as its abuse. I suggest parenting classes LOL so I have to stay at home....Good topic Georgina.
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