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Byron Shire
April 21, 2021

The politics of demonising mental health 

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Andrew P Street

For years now, Australians have been told to be honest about their mental health: to openly seek help, to be unashamed about having discussions with employers and family about their struggles, and to fight the damaging, hurtful stigma around a common human experience.

And then came reports that a cabinet minister has been accused of an historic sexual assault, and all that well-meaning rhetoric apparently went right out of the window.

While the prime minister Scott Morrison has said how very, very much he doesn’t want the current accusations against Attorney General Christian Porter to descend into a ‘trial by media’, his refusal to hold an inquiry (much less read the actual complaint, so his story goes …) has meant that the vacuum has been filled by a coterie of journalists, at least one of whom is a personal friend of Porter, who have decided to hold that media trial for themselves.

Those accusations, it should be made clear, have not been proven – and now that Porter has begun defamation action against the ABC, they seem unlikely to be tested outside of a time-consuming civil suit.

This matter would be a good thing to at least attempt to settle in a non-media venue, since it involves the highest legal office-holder in the country

This matter would be a good thing to at least attempt to settle in a non-media venue, since it involves the highest legal office-holder in the country.

Unfortunately, that’s also very difficult since the alleged victim, ‘Kate’, is no longer with us. She reportedly took her own life, and had spent time in mental health facilities as an adult.

According to reports, she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; and this is currently being deliberately misrepresented by sections of the media as though it’s some sort of Get Out Of Accusations Free card.

By attacking the credibility of the victim on the ground of her mental illness, these journalists are also sending a strong, unambiguous message: that people who have suffered from mental illness are just plain crazy.

As cynical defences go, it’s brilliant – not least because people who suffer traumatic experiences like sexual violence often have mental health problems later.

Casting doubt on someone’s credibility purely on the basis that they have a mental health disorder is an especially masterful piece of sleight of hand

But casting doubt on someone’s credibility purely on the basis that they have a mental health disorder is an especially masterful piece of sleight of hand, flipping what might otherwise seem like supportive circumstantial evidence for an offence into reasonable doubt over its very existence. Bravo!

And piling on the shame also discourages people from learning more about mental illness. Like, you know, what ‘bipolar’ actually means.

For most people with bipolar, the disorder means they go through periods of very low, depressed mood and (in some but not all cases) periods of higher, agitated mood.

People can also suffer delusions, certainly, but it’s not a common symptom and not something any therapist would automatically expect.

(It’s worth adding that there can be a legitimate confusion over definitions here, in that a therapist might describe someone with severe depression as having ‘delusional beliefs’, but these refer to things like, for example, being convinced that one is incapable of improvement to a degree that hinders effective therapy.

When the average person hears ‘delusional beliefs’, they’re more likely to think the patient believes themselves to be the Queen of Sheba

(When the average person hears ‘delusional beliefs’, on the other hand, they’re more likely to think the patient believes themselves to be the Queen of Sheba – at least, in the exact words of certain relatives I could name.)

Mental illness is a serious issue. Getting help is still notoriously difficult, with long wait times very much the norm (assuming you’re in a well-resourced area: good luck seeing anyone if you’re in regional Australia …).

And yet, it’s also an everyday experience.

The government’s own Department of Health website claims that ‘almost half of all Australians aged 16 to 85 years – 7.3 million people – will experience mental illness at some point in their life’.

And at the risk of stereotyping my fellow toilers in the word-mines, one doesn’t exactly have to search hard for writers who have a history of depression or anxiety – for my part, I just have to glance at a reflective surface – so it feels especially cruel to see journalists perpetuating damaging myths about what living with mental illness actually entails when they should absolutely know better.

But as long as there are people who will make accusatory, ad hominem attacks on people for accessing help from health professionals, people who could strongly benefit from help with their mental health will be discouraged from seeking it out.

Some will do so out of shame, others out of a refusal to think they’re One Of Those Crazy People – and some out of a practical fear that it could be held against them.

Tragically, the last fortnight has shown those fears to be justified.


Andrew P Street. Photo Daniel Boud.

 

Andrew P Street is a Sydney-based, Adelaide-built journalist, columnist, author, editor and broadcaster. Apart from his monthly Echo column, he pens a regular column in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Mr Street is also the author of the acclaimed The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott, and The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat.

For more info, visit www.andrewpstreet.com.


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4 COMMENTS

  1. How is your mental health? Perfect, as we are all imperfect and we all need help. I think, do you? We all need to be in an unashamed discussion with employers and family about our struggles over breakfast with Rice Bubbles and why rice bubbles, and to fight the struggling blight of that damaging, hurtful stigma around the common human experience of being alive, and to face the day before us from the terrible and black night before.

  2. the whole universe is bi_polar. All it means is positive to negative. Nothing can survive without being bi_polar, everything in the cosmos is. If you are told you have bi_polar take it as a compliment Apart from that time to sort out the scum running this country.

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