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Director of Zhuchi, Liz Newton, who is intimately
acquainted with mental health issues, shares an
experience: "I have a neighbour with schizophrenia. He
remarked one day that he enjoyed our conversations for
a profoundly simple reason: I seem to view him as more
than just "a schizophrenic" -- we talk about achievements
and wellness and goals. He said no one really talks about
stuff like that with people like him.
My name is Liz Newton and I'm the director of ZHUCHI,
a boutique training service offering education suitable for
anyone -- the clinician who treats mental illness through to
the people who live with it. I have a mental illness -- Major
Depressive Disorder, with features of trauma.
While "Life has never been easy", I was only formally
diagnosed in 2007, when I was 32. Until that point,
life had been mostly lived in fear, despair and an
inexplicable state of panic about some unknown terrible
consequence. Occasionally I have 'supernatural'
irrational beliefs, on occasion I have 'black outs' after
highly charged emotional interactions -- usually when I
fear irrationally for my welfare. On average, I have one
significant episode of depression annually which totally
incapacitates me. I don't know why it took so long for me
to get treatment -- I think I genuinely believed this was life
on life's terms. I now know this is not the case.
I have worked in mental health for almost twelve years,
eight of those managing the professional development
calendar for the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, the
rest as Senior Patient Advisor for acutely ill people in
psychiatric hospital. I have seen children, adolescents,
adults and elderly horribly unwell with a mental illness.
I've had the great privilege to spend time with a cohort
who could be forgiven for throwing in the towel; people
who against all odds grip tenaciously to life; people
who live with merciless and destructive psychological
illnesses; who are frequently isolated from reality and
have often lost their loved ones and friendships as a
result of their illness.
Not only are they incredibly sick but many are alone and
while I am not suggesting there is any better or failsafe
method, these people are hospitalised, usually against
their will, and their discharge is entirely contingent on the
decisions made by others. At this stage, not only has the
person lost their mind but they have lost most of the civil
and human rights most of us take for granted.
I believe that people with mental illness are incredibly
strong. I believe them to be some of the strongest people
I have ever encountered. They know there is no cure, only
medication that may or may not reduce the symptoms. In
most cases my medication is guaranteed to do at least
one of the following: make me lose my primal appetites,
gain weight, get bad skin, become foggy and increase
my candidacy for heart disease, diabetes, the shakes,
twitches and blood poisoning. I know I have lost my social
networks to my disease. I know that people are more
likely to be scared of me than compassionate towards
me. Knowing all of this and still meeting life, face on, is
something that people with mental illness do -- every day.
While I am heartened by the great work being done
to promote awareness around mental illness through
organisations like beyondblue, we are far from giving
mental illness the attention it needs. Looking at the
financial impact mental illness has on our country, and
the resources allocated to it, there is huge disparity --
despite statistics suggesting more people are going to be
affected by mental illness either directly or indirectly than
by any other illness. If the World Health Organisation is to
be believed, by 2030, neuropsychiatric illnesses (mental
illnesses and illnesses of the brain) will be the second
highest cause of disease burden, after heart disease, in
the developed world.
The domino effect creates a bigger social issue: families,
workplaces, the country's bottom line are all impacted.
It is an undeniable truth that we are not handling the
problem. Even if this truth isn't accepted on a personal
level, organisations, employers, managers and budget
makers need to start looking at mental illness as a top-
tier risk. Workcover statistics for mental health-related
claims in 2012 were c$730 million. Australia's GDP
spending on mental disorders in 2009-2010 was $6.1
billion - eight percent of the country's spending.
Yet we still have enormous trouble just knowing how to
talk about it.
Until mental illness becomes a priority policy item, it is up
to those at the ground level to make progress addressing
the problem by
• Supporting initiatives in the community that bring about
social and emotional wellbeing
• Accepting mental illness as genuine rather than the
result of poor decisions, an excuse to malinger, bad
upbringing or even 'make believe'
• Just having the courage to simply talk about it, learn
about it and normalise it.
These are all starting points.
Recently I read of a businessman's commitment to put
staff wellbeing at the top of his organisation's agenda. It
took an episode of depression, so severe he nearly took
his own life, for this commitment to occur. He regretted
being passive in his previous handling of mental health in
his workforce, understanding now how debilitating mental
illness can be.
The truth is mental illness is misunderstood. Stigma
and inaction come from this ignorance. Education
is the antidote to ignorance. From education comes
understanding, from understanding comes compassion.
And thus begins lasting and meaningful change.
At this stage, not only has the person
lost their mind but they have lost most
of the civil and human rights most of us
take for granted
BY LIZ NEWTON
www.mn.catholic.org.au Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
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