Earlier this year I picked up a young woman in obvious mental distress and took her to my home. After feeding her and assessing the situation I ended up taking her to hospital where I stayed with her until I was assured that she was to be admitted and cared for.
Later I visited her at Tweed Heads where she’d been transferred and was relieved to discover that she had recovered from her ‘episode’ and that she was soon to return home to Adelaide.
She later sent me a lovely thankyou. She was okay and, in retrospect, realised how her psychosis had put her at risk. It was weird to be thanked. It felt like something that we should do for each other if we can.
Although in that situation there certainly was an opportunity for me to step away, I am really pleased that I ‘stepped up’. In the end it didn’t take a lot of effort from me. What it took was my engaging with someone.
October is Mental Health Month in NSW and it is focused around raising awareness around mental health and wellbeing. Key themes are destigmatisation and inclusion.
Interestingly, when I told friends the story of the young woman I helped they said, ‘Weren’t you afraid?’ I was, but only that she might try to jump out of the car while I was driving. I certainly didn’t feel any risk from her. What I did feel though was immense compassion and a sense of responsibility to try to assist her.
Fay Jackson is the deputy commissioner for the NSW Mental Health Commission, the general manager of Flourish, and the CEO of Vision In Mind believes people still have a lot of fear around mental illness. (Illness is not a word that Fay likes using.)
‘I think people are afraid of mental health; they are afraid of getting poor mental illness themselves,’ says Fay.
‘They talk about it as not being normal, but one in 4–5 people at any given moment has a mental health issue; over a course of a lifetime 50 per cent of people experience it.’ So statistically, having incidences around mental health is completely normal.
Discrimination and lack of inclusion starts with language. People can make some real changes by just being more aware of the words they use.
Saying ‘I had a full on day at work – it was mental!’ or ‘She’s nuts!’ are part of what has continued the marginalisation of people with mental illness.
Fay absolutely agrees. ‘Language can be hurtful and discriminating and stigmatising. Even the weather report has been known to say ‘some schizophrenic weather ahead’. It just further marginalises and builds more fear about mental illness. Language makes and breaks cultures. If we have a positive language full of hope and understanding, than a lot of the trauma and marginalisation that comes about will dissipate.’
One of the most exciting changes in what is available for people to support their mental health is Peer support. Fay Jackson is a fierce advocate of peer workers and believes that is one of the ways we can make real societal changes.
‘Peer workers are people who have experienced mental health issues and who are supporting people; they are recovering or are recovered folk who support people on their recovery journey. They use their lived experience purposefully to connect with people to build trust and rapport, and to mentor and support people during the tough times; they embody hope because they have been through similar experiences and they are saying you can do it,’ says Fay.
At Flourish 52 per cent of the staff have lived experience.
‘Including the range of diagnoses that people have. We support people in the workplace. And people when they are supported are generally really good employee. We have no more problems with them than we do with other members of the staff. It is a furphy that people with mental issues can’t be valuable members of society. It’s discrimination, and discrimination is illegal.’
Inclusion is a key theme for people with lived experience. ‘It’s about living a connected meaningful life. It is what will keep people alive’ says Fay. ‘People can have terrible thoughts and feelings but if they feel valued and have value it is likely to to keep them alive through tough times. When they can’t experience hope people are at risk. We need people to be able to experience hope.’
Things are clearly changing in regard to societal attitudes, but not for everyone.
‘There have been changes around the diagnosis of depression and anxiety and PTSD but it hasn’t changed around the diagnosis of bipolar, schizophrenia, personality disorder. Those diagnoses are greatly feared and they shouldn’t be. I have a diagnosis of bipolar schizoid affective disorder but I am a mother and a grandmother and have been married to my husband for 38 years. If people around us are supportive, those of us with what are considered serious and enduring mental health issues can lead good, contributing, connected, and valuable lives.’ Fay Jackson just happens to be deputy commissioner for the NSW Mental Health Commission. Pretty impressive for a woman who was told by doctors that she would ‘never work’. Fay Jackson is a passionate advocate for people with lived experience but is also an inspiration in what she has achieved.
The media are often responsible for perpetuating negative and stigmatising stories of people experiencing poor mental health.
‘For every negative story there would be a thousand positive stories but the media don’t want to print those stories,’ says Fay. ‘They only want the sensationalisation of the human condition…’
In the end it is about connecting.
‘We are half living our lives by not connecting to the people in our community,’ says Fay. ‘Our community aren’t fulfilling their potential because they are not engaging.’
With World Mental Health Day marked for 10 October every year it’s important to remember that it’s not just about what services are available.
‘Every member of society can play a role in supporting a person,’ says Fay. ‘You don’t have to have a degree, you don’t need to be a psychiatrist or a doctor to play your role to help someone overcome the trauma that they are experiencing. A colleague or friend or relative who is prepared to say I will help you through this – you can make a plan, meet weekly or whatever works and a person can get through it when the people around are supporting them.’
While services in regional areas aren’t as varied and available as often as in metropolitan areas, Fay believes there are some great online forums to speak with peers with lived experience.
One such place to go to experience peer to peer support is www.sane.org.