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In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week….

Discussing mental health is important all year ‘round, however I feel that bringing this topic to light during mental health awareness week, especially during the year 2020 is very important as it is a time where we can all learn from each other through sharing facts, statistics and information on the matter. I firstly think that it is important to point out that mental illness does not discriminate; it can take a hold of anyone from your next-door neighbour to your number one idol. 

Recently Michelle Obama disclosed on her latest episode of her podcast that she has been suffering from low-grade depression. Other celebrities such as Kanye West, Caitlyn Jenner, Michael Phelps, Tamar Braxton, Dua Lupa and many others have also recently raised awareness on mental health due to their own personal experiences with mental illness. 

The World Health Organisation (2017) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. They also define mental illness as  “mental disorders” that usually consist of “abnormal thoughts, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others”. Some examples might be schizophrenia, depression, psychosis, bi-polar, post traumatic stress disorder and many others that might occur from substance abuse.

About half of all psychiatric illnesses develop by the age of 14, affecting around 20% of children and teenagers worldwide. This is disturbing because many mental illnesses are closely associated with high suicide rates, and this is alarming because approximately 800,000 individuals commit suicide each year, with 75% of deaths being in low- and middle-income countries (WHO, 2017).

There is a lot of stigma around mental illness because a lot of people tend to believe that they are incurable as outlined by Ferguson (2016), when this may not be the case. This is often why people who have mental illness are so fearful of speaking out about their experiences, due to a fear of being judged or permanently labelled. For instance Ferguson highlights that individuals suffering from borderline personality disorder are often discriminated against and turned away from accessing mental health services and this is because they have complex needs. 

This means that they cannot have all of their required needs met from the mental health department alone. Additionally they require different, very intensive one on one treatments (that need to be a minimum of 3 hours long per appointment) and this intensive service is not readily available within the Australian mental health care department. So it is not a matter of BPD being incurable but it is a matter of a barrier to accessing the required services due to stigma and fragmented services as a result of neoliberalism. 

This can place patients suffering from BPD in an awful position as outlined by Ferguson (2017) because they then become systemically disadvantaged. This means that they are experiencing oppression and exclusion within the mental health department due to reasons that are out of their control (such as an inability to receive all the services they need within one space as this combination of all services in one spot does not exist), and as a result they cannot receive the treatment they need. 

The American Psychiatric Association (1994) describes borderline personality disorder as a disorder that is “more common among women and often where there is a childhood history of unstable relationships, sexual abuse, family violence or neglect” for those who do not know what borderline personality disorder is. Unstable relationships, weak or pessimistic sense of self, erratic moods, impulsivity and an extreme fear of abandonment are the signs that occur as a result. Symptoms usually occur in adolescence and are persistent, repetitive and impact most (or all) components of life.

Other reasons that stigma might occur around mental illness could be due to the impact that mental illness has on parental skills. Hegarty (2005) highlights that parents suffering from mental illness might have poor perception, cognition and communication skills as outlined in the NSW Department of Community Services (2004). Some common problems among parents as a result of this are emotional withdrawal, emotional unavailability, unresponsiveness, excessive criticism, disorganisation, inconsistency, inactivity and tense behaviour (Mowbray et al, 2000). This could result in a lower ability for parents to meet their children’s needs meaning that neglect could arise or other forms of child abuse due to a difficulty in controlling emotions and a loss of motivation (Hegarty, 2005). 

Newman and Stevensen (2005) highlight this by noting that disorders such as antisocial personality disorder will contribute to “a lack of responsible parenting in areas of protection, hygiene, diet, responsive emotional caring, illness and physical injury and money management.” In addition, certain parents may be terrified of abusing their kids and therefore may become more withdrawn. Others can become invasive and anxious in opposition due to wanting to defend their children to avoid the abuse. 

Antisocial personality disorder is also known as psychopathy or sociopathy for those who don’t know and it is characterised by a pervasive disrespect for the rights of others. It is followed by a pattern of childhood and juvenile behavioural issues, due to violations of societal norms around violence against humans and animals, property damage, deceitfulness or stealing, or severe breach of laws. Some traits that may be associated with this condition include participation in unlawful conduct; arrogance, superficial charm; a lack of consideration to other peoples wishes, interests, perspectives or emotions; lying and manipulation; impulsiveness; hostility and irritability; insensitivity, irresponsibility with respect to work and money; and lacking guilt and remorse (American Psychological Association, 1994).

While all of the outlined issues up above in regards to child abuse and neglect are very significant and IMPORTANT TOO, it is also just as important to remember that nobody wakes up in the morning and decides to choose what mental illness they will wear for the day. This is why we need to extend compassion to those who are suffering a battle that we may or may not know anything about as we may never be able to understand what they are experiencing and why they are doing things the way that they are. 

Human rights are extremely important and nobody deserves to have their rights violated in any way, shape or form. So yes this undoubtedly means children who are experiencing abuse at the hands of parents experiencing mental illness deserve their rights protected. It also in opposition means that those same parents who are suffering from mental illness also deserve their rights to be protected too as it was highlighted earlier by Hegarty (2005) that parents suffering from mental illness could possibly fail to meet their children’s needs due to a lack of motivation, poor perception and cognition, bad communication skills, an inability to regulate emotions, unresponsiveness, excessive criticism and tense behaviour as a result of mental illness. These individuals that are suffering from the above consequences deserve to be able to freely reach out for help without fear of being oppressed, rejected, labelled or excluded in any way. WHO (2017) highlighted that there is a high amount of reports of right violations among patients experiencing mental illness throughout all continents of the world. 

As a society if we do not normalise speaking out about mental health concerns then we run the risk of enabling individuals who are suffering from mental illness to continue to feel oppressed and excluded resulting in more suicides, higher child abuse cases due to an inability to reach out and get help and many other consequences that will impact us as a whole in society so do your part and show your support for those who are suffering in silence.

If you do not then people who are carrying the burden of being labelled with certain illnesses face the risk of being not only being systemically oppressed by health professionals that are unwilling to work with them due to the false belief that their disorders are ‘incurable’, but they are also socially excluded too due to the stigma that exists around mental illness. This is something that is important to consider before agreeing to believe all stereotypes that are associated with certain mental illnesses, as a lot of them may not be true. 

It is true that in order to identify with a certain mental illness you need to experience certain signs and symptoms first, but not everyone reacts to these signs and symptoms in the same way and that is why it is wrong to categorise people in a certain box based upon which mental illness they have. For instance if someone has PTSD from experiencing child abuse, another person has PTSD from fighting in the war and another has it from being abducted then all three individuals will re-experience their traumas through “nightmares, obsessive thoughts, flashbacks, avoidance of situations and experience anxiety” as emphasised in the APA (1994). But not all individuals will react to PTSD in the same way and what I mean by this is in response one might become violent, one might become withdrawn and experience suicidal thoughts while another might start using drugs as coping mechanism. Therefore it would be very wrong to say something stereotypical like “all people experiencing PTSD are dangerous”. 

The overall point that I will conclude with on this post is that mental illness does not define who a person is. Sure a mental illness might impact someone and result in certain experiences, but these experiences are different for everyone, so it is so wrong to stereotype people and categorise them into one “way of being” or one “way of thinking” based on a label that they have been given. Now that you have broadened your perspectives, how will you show your ally-ship? 

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