At school I knew enough to be ashamed of the darkness that engulfed me and hid it from school friends and most others in my life. I cried at home to my parents, felt like I was cut off by a pane of glass from the world, and suffered regular immobilising migraines.
Despite seeking help I was relentlessly bullied at school.
One day I was called out of class and told to report to the counselor’s room. She quickly enquired if I was being sexually abused by my father. Going to the counselor’s was such an ignominy that I had no natural inclination to confide in her in any case. I was shocked that she could suggest my upstanding and trustworthy father could be harming me, because they thought I was making too much fuss about the bullying. This encounter made me realise there were other reasons to keep quiet about the doom that had overwhelmed my life. If they suspected my father over my complaints about bullying, what would they imagine if I spoke of my black cloud?
This is National Mental Health Week and I wonder if students today receive greater understanding since there is greater education about mental illness, so prevalent among the young. Now that I have a child of my own I am concerned that some professionals seem to blame the victim in bullying. Indeed one health care provider told me I had to teach my daughter to conform because if she insisted on being different she would be bullied.
Is this grin -and-bear-it-deny-yourself-your-expression still widely the currency of the day 30 years on? If it is, how helpful is this for young minds experiencing troubling thoughts and perhaps suicide? What kind of supportive environment would this provide to vulnerable youth?
“The aim of mental health week is to promote social and emotional well-being to the community, encouraging people to maximise their health potential, enhancing the coping capacity of communities, families, individuals and increasing mental health recovery” (MENTAL AS – ABC).
Apparently for successive governments this has meant throwing people off the disability pension and making it ever more difficult to receive. As Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter stated, “We want to ensure there are pathways to get people back into study or work rather than providing incentives for people to get stuck on set and forget welfare payments (The Australian, 13 July 2016).
As a single mum, after a recent 2 month stint in psychiatric hospitals, ECT treatment, and with a four month baby in the sling, I tried to sort out the immediate needs my family had: income and accommodation. This led me to approach the Department of Housing and Centrelink. Because mum had moved to a retirement village living with her long term was no longer an option. Although I persisted for some time I was informed that I would be on a 10 year waiting list for social housing and that even those living in caravan parks couldn’t get housing earlier. Eventually I got a house in the private rental market: the landlord turned out to be deceitful and manipulative and there were rats that I could not get rid of. But it was a home and where my baby developed into a toddler.
As for Centrelink, I met someone who had obviously just finished their social work degree, and who unsubtly suggested I wanted to bludge off the system. He had my medical history and the reports from the psychiatrist and psychologist, and details of previous suicide attempts. He ought to have known better. His face remained impassive while tears poured from my eyes, while I bounced my baby on my lap to calm her.
Trying to negotiate these hurdles was enormous and were also humiliating and belittling experiences for me. But at least I had previous experience of bureaucracy and I also had the unstinting support of my mum. How much harder it must be for a young person, trying to get some stability in their life, a roof over their head, food in their belly, at a time when their reality is on the brink of falling apart. What if they don’t have the support of parents or others?
Talking about incentives to work at this stage sounds ludicrous. As does giving someone the stick.
Chair of the National Mental Health Commission, Professor Allan Fels, AO states “Even the most disadvantaged Australians should be able to lead a “contributing life” whatever that means for them and this simple goal will be our touchstone and yardstick.” (my emphasis)
Don’t get me wrong – I am incredibly grateful for the support I receive, the support necessary to keep me and my daughter secure and well. This continues to benefit me and I realise others need this kind of help. In the current political climate however, this essential support to seriously ill people, seems at risk of being eroded. My experience shows externally imposed timeframes do nothing to influence health outcomes and should be part and parcel of supports provided.
Early intervention should not be about disempowerment and humiliation as if these are sticks to beat individuals out of their mental illness. If “incentives” are supports that foster self-respect and security and embarking on their own life’s unique journey, I am all for it.