If you didn’t spend the greater part of Tuesday this week in your bedclothes due to a problem of poor mental health, you’d have heard a lot of public discussion about the problem of poor mental health. This, apparently, is our Mental Health Month and yesterday was our Mental Health Day.
The aim of all the official Mental Health days, months and weeks is chiefly to make us all feel more chipper about poor mental health. Personally, I found it a little difficult on Tuesday to do as organisers recommend and “look at mental illness in a different light—a positive light”. This is because I am – according to the diagnoses of a GP, therapist and, ahem, another therapist – undergoing a spot of poor mental health. The thing about most forms of poor mental health is that they tend to show their sufferers things in a different light—a negative one. They don’t just call it depression for kicks.
I do not disclose this to you to gain your sympathy—please, spare your kindness for someone you love, or someone who doesn’t have a GP, a therapist and another therapist to fix her current moods of panic and despair. I do not do this with the conviction that you and I will “relate”—my depression, anxiety, or whatever it was that my shrink last wrote in a notebook, is too boring and too individual for you to find helpfully familiar.
The thing about most forms of poor mental health is that they tend to show their sufferers things in a different light—a negative one. They don’t just call it depression for kicks.
Most of all, I do not disclose with the same hope that Mental Health Day has of ending “stigma” by showing “mental illness in a different light”.
I’m acutely aware, of course, that mental ill health carries with it a “stigma”. As I write these words, I worry that the “stigma” they provoke will cause my employers not to applaud my stigma-ending, but rather, to end my employment. Let’s us in poor mental health be a bit cheeky about ourselves and admit that we probably wouldn’t give us a job, either. If it’s a choice for most employers between an apparently healthy worker and an unwell one, old Post-Traumatic Stress Head over here will be swiftly returned to her bedclothes. Which will not be bathed in that desired “positive light”.
I know there are those who can be very efficient workers while suffering poor mental health. Of course, I like to think I am one of these remarkable people, but I know that I’m probably not. And that’s not just the “stigma” talking. And it’s certainly not that I am less than eager to see things in a more “positive light”; heck, I’m so eager, I pay a guy $190 per half-hour to turn on the happy switch. The fact remains, I am less productive as a worker when parts of me aren’t working well.
So, for me, and for so many, the most efficient course of “stigma”-ending policy action would be a good old-fashioned sick day and a good old-fashioned job. But, forty percent of Australian workers are now independent contractors, self-employed or casual. No Mental Health Day holiday for us.
It seems to me that a policy that protects all workers from dismissal due to poor health, of mental or any other type, would work way faster than year-after-year of illuminating me and others in a “positive light”. Baby, you could point all your lumens at me, but I’m still going to be gloomy and potentially unprofitable until I get better. And I can only get better if I cough up money to a doctor, which is exactly why someone with poor mental health might say to their boss, “No. Who me? Depressed? You have it very wrong. I am the sort of perky business lady who sees things in a positive light!”
The fact remains, I am less productive as a worker when parts of me aren’t working well.
That conversation wasn’t really about “stigma”. It was about our newer laws that favour the profits of employers over the rights of employees.
Look. If these Mental Health promotions persuade a few family members or colleagues to see mood disorders etc. as “positive”, I guess that’s okay. I mean, the experience of poor health is not “positive”, and this is often least due to “stigma”, most often due to the fact that we are unwell. I mean, if you want to see my anxiety attacks, or even my flu, as “positive”, go right ahead. This doesn’t make the overwhelming majority of mental disorders, or flus, feel positive, and it doesn’t make “stigma” the number one problem for most.
The other day, a good mate of mine with a bipolar diagnosis said, “When I’m crying naked and frantic on the bathroom floor, the last of my worries is stigma”. Way ahead for him are the priorities of secure employment and access to a practitioner. Neither of these were available to him in his regional home, so he left his family and came to the city to find them. And, he’s a great guy whom I could easily describe in a “positive light”. I could tell you that he’s brave and determined, and that he merits our applause. But, the other half of his truth is: this life is difficult and will not be made much easier by a grateful ovation before a stage flooded with light.
When the deep sadness takes hold, I imagine where I might shove these stigma-ending, light-shedding, awareness-raising ribbons. When I am well, I am just ordinarily sad that we have come to believe that most problems can be meaningfully addressed with advertising campaigns, that we have forgotten that most lives are improved in the very manner they are lived.
Housing. Job security. Healthcare. Nutrition. Education. Confidence that the people that you love best will be cared for by others when you’re unavailable due to work or necessary leisure, or even a spot of poor mental health. These are the things everybody needs. And if everyone in the nation had them, then there could be no better way to advertise ourselves in a positive light.