October is Mental Health Month. It’s worth thinking about what it means to you. Too often we think of people with lived experience of mental illness as ‘the other,’ but they are me, they are you, they are your parents, they are your kids. They are the man who walks our roads in garbage bags, they are the quiet woman at the table next to you, they are the person in your workplace who couldn’t cope last week.
Very often people close to us who are experiencing distress are too confronting, they’re too difficult, they take up time, their sadness is inconvenient and there is often no apparent solution. We like solutions. We like people to be fixed.
Mental illness is confronting – it reminds us how close we all are to our psychological precipice. For many, their mental distress is a source of shame. Very often it is the result of deep trauma that is often unaddressed or trivialised. We exist in a culture that attempts to combat bullying with public campaigns run through schools, but ironically our entire political system is built on bullying. That’s powerful role-modelling. Just turn on question time to see how cruel and belittling our so called leaders can be.
We know the statistics when it comes to suicide, that 1 in 5 people experience mental illness – but how does that change how we support each other? How do we find compassion for people who suffer? How do we find space, in a world built for the driven, for people who are lost? How do we facilitate true connection? There is no greater loneliness than being unwell. Or loving someone who has lost their way.
When my daughter became unwell I was swamped with disbelief. I wanted an instant fix. I felt grief. And shame. And rage at myself and the world for not seeming to notice the pain and the struggle. I felt guilt that I had done this. I thought that in our region – a region famed for ‘healing’, that there must be lots of options to assist a person to find their way back to wellness. There aren’t. Particularly for young people.
Young people experiencing mental health issues are extremely vulnerable – and there are very few options. There were psychologists. And psychiatrists. And while this helped, to some extent it always felt there was something missing. Sitting talking about what’s wrong with you always felt counter-intuitive to me – like it was reinforcing a deeper belief in your broken-ness.
Surely people who are disengaged need to find their way back to engagement? To meaning and purpose? Wouldn’t building ‘story’ be more helpful than constantly reflecting out. Shouldn’t we be giving people something to be proud of? Something to talk about? The system is often as brutalising as the illness, and seeking help is often a referral merry-go-round to closed doors.
I remember once when my daughter was feeling suicidal; we were directed to an adolescent mental health facility in the region. On arrival, we were taken outside for assessment, and the worker – who was probably trying to be helpful – said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but I don’t know if this is the best place for you right now, there’s a lot of young girls in there trying to hang themselves’. It wasn’t the response we were expecting. We had arrived hoping for safety. I said ‘okay’, and left.
This wasn’t rolling like I expected.
It wasn’t like the ads on telly that tell you to seek help from professionals in this type of crisis.
I was in the car with a young person who had desperately wanted help, about to drive home, without having received any help. I thought there’d be a nice soft cushion of support on offer. I sat in the car a moment, not really sure what to say. Struggling to find that motherly assurance that I had this under control. I didn’t. My daughter said nothing. After I made sure I wasn’t going to cry I asked ‘Are you okay?’ With her brilliant adolescent wisdom she said ‘They could have just said they were fucking full’. Yes, they could have. Young people often have a clarity of insight we lack. So we went home and made it through a difficult few days without the support of the system.
What I looked for all those years was a program. Something that might help her reconnect with her self-confidence and belief in her place in the world. The program just didn’t exist.
Today I was asked to be ambassador for an organisation called Human Nature Adventure Therapy – something I would have loved to have found for my daughter – it would have been a game changer for her.
They provide support and programs for at-risk young people in our area. It’s about working closely with young people and helping them achieve some extraordinary outcomes trekking in nature. Of course they’re not funded. My role is to try and raise awareness of what they do, and bring sponsors on-board so they can work with the many, many young people who would benefit from their support.
So why not do something for Mental Health Month; check out their website www.humannature.org.au and hey, you could even become a sponsor!