Mental illness won't go away once we address stigma - we need to address the symptoms, writes Ben Pobjie.
Ben Pobjie

The Feed
11 Oct 2016 - 4:53 PM 

I’m so tired of mental health stigma. It’s everywhere these days. The Mental Health Foundation of Australia wants us to fight stigma. SANE Australia wants us to “say no” to stigma. Beyond Blue would like us to not only reduce stigma, but increase wisdom. And across the internet, untold legions of writers pen sensitive thinkpieces on the terrible stigma of mental health and how important it is to fight it.

I’ve had enough of it. I don’t want to hear any more about stigma. I’d just like a few days off from fighting the stigma of my mental illness, so I can spend a bit of time fighting the illness itself. 

Which is not that easy, as it happens. I’m keen to avoid overstating my own situation – I know my problems are pretty mild in the scheme of things – but three or four gut-churning panic attacks every week and the regular arguments between warring halves of my brain on the question of whether I need to die today or not can definitely wear one down. 

"If you’re lucky you might find a therapist whose fee is only double the rebate"

To help me deal with all that, I have a pill called Effexor, the efficacy of which I can judge by the fact that when I forget to take it I feel slightly worse than when I remember. In the past I’ve also attended sessions with psychologists, but I can’t afford that anymore. Medicare does offer a rebate for psychologist sessions: if you’re lucky you might find a therapist whose fee is only double the rebate. And you’ll only be covered for ten sessions a year anyway, as the government apparently believes that mental illness is a seasonal thing. Or maybe they think it’s like tennis elbow: just rest up and get a few massages and you’ll be fine. 

By an astonishing slice of luck, I’m a white middle-class suburban man with a network of family and friends who I can reach out to for help and support when I’m in need. I can only imagine the nightmare suffered by someone struggling with mental illness while homeless, or a victim of abuse, or living in a remote community. 

"It’s nice to educate people about the realities of mental illness... but even nicer than all those things are resources"

That’s what we’re fighting against, not “stigma”. It’s nice to educate people about the realities of mental illness, it’s nice to improve understanding and start conversations and get everything out in the open. But even nicer than all those things are resources. Cheap medication. Therapists we can afford, and who we can access no matter where we live. Hospitals with the beds to accommodate us and the staff to treat us. 

They say you can’t solve problems just by throwing money at them, but the people who say that are always the ones trying to get out of throwing any money. Money could probably solve a lot of problems for someone whose mental illness prevents them from working: the maximum Disability Support Pension for a single person is $873.90 a fortnight. If your incapacity is temporary, the powers that be have decided that you need even less: the maximum Sickness Allowance for a person without children is $527.60. 

"If you can’t work, we’ll make sure you can’t feed yourself or keep a roof over your head"

Try living on that. Actually don’t, I’ll save you the trouble: you can’t. The worse your mental illness, the more your country will punish you for having it. If you can’t work, we’ll make sure you can’t feed yourself or keep a roof over your head, and when your financial stress inevitably makes your condition worse, we’ll make it as hard as possible to get treatment for it. If you’re lucky you might end up in an emergency room. If you’re unlucky you won’t make it that far. For Australians aged between 15 and 44, the leading cause of death is suicide, and the system is set up to ensure that doesn’t change. 

Or you can buy into the narrative that it’s all caused by stigma. And that if we keep fighting stigma hard enough for long enough, it’ll all be fixed – the funding gaps, the doctor and bed shortages, the inaccessibility of services. You can keep giving money to “awareness campaigns” that portray the crisis as simply one of ignorance and bad attitudes. 

And it’s not like I don’t know how bad attitudes can hurt. The last office job I had was distinguished by management that said all the right things when informed of my depression, then turned its back as soon as I showed any symptoms of it. It sucks when people act uncaringly. 

"We’ve had as much awareness as we can take"

But let’s be honest: we’ve had as much awareness as we can take. If there’s anyone left who’s not aware, they’re living underground. If there’s anyone out there perpetuating the stigma, it’s not because they don’t know any better, it’s because they don’t care. Which sounds pretty mean, but is after all government policy. 

I’m full to bursting with awareness. I’m bulging painfully with the need to fight stigma. I’m bloated by moving personal testimonies. It’s gotten to the point where reading about someone else’s brave fight with depression just triggers my own – and the irony of my saying that when I’m notorious for writing those pieces myself is not lost on me, and to anyone who’s likewise triggered by my own gratuitous misery memoirs: I am truly sorry. But it’s a coping mechanism, and coping mechanisms are all we have when real help is nowhere to be found. 

"Coping mechanisms are all we have when real help is nowhere to be found"

I don’t want awareness. I don’t want to fight the stigma. I don’t to be asked whether I', OK. I want real help. Thousands of people all around this country need real help. They need resources to keep them alive, and to make being alive worth the effort. They need a society that takes their illness seriously enough to stop paying feelgood lip service, to admit that the keys to mental health problems don’t lie in wrongful thoughts, but in the vacuum of meaningful actions.  

In the end the stigma we’re all suffering from is the stigma of living in a country that’s happy to see thousands of its people laid waste by their own minds. That stigma we could really stand to end. 

Ben Pobjie is a writer, comedian and poet. He has written forThe AgeThe Sydney Morning HeraldNew MatildaThe Roar, and Crikey, among others. His latest book is Error Australis.

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