Thanks to the way mental illness is portrayed in movies, psychiatrist Dr Mark Cross was a fourth year medical student by the time he realised that schizophrenia was not split personality. “One of the huge impacts Hollywood has on our psyche is how we interpret illness,” he says.
Dr Cross is on a mission to dismantle the damaging misconceptions around mental illness. In 2014 the senior psychiatrist at Campbelltown hospital’s Mental Health Youth ward featured in the television series Changing Minds, filmed at Liverpool hospital and broadcast as part of ABS’s ‘Mental As’ initiative during Mental Health Week.
Changing Minds: The Go-To Guide to Mental Health for You, Family and Friends (ABC Books, $29.99) is Dr Cross’s latest project, a book co-written with Dr Catherine Hanrahan, a researcher from the television series that is full of practical advice and information for anyone dealing with mental illness.
There are different levels of psychological understanding in different cultures. In some cultures it’s still seen as shameful to own up to having a mental illness.
The two opening chapters of the book deal with living with mental illness and understanding the hospital system in Australia. The next ten chapters cover major mental health issues: depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, trauma, psychosis and schizophrenia, substance abuse, gender identity and sexual disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, and suicide. At the end of each chapter the authors include direct advice about what to do if person or their loved one has a disorder, and provide resources for people who want more information.
The publication of Changing Minds comes at a time when mental illness is becoming more prevalent in Australian society. The most common mental illness to affect Australians is depression, with some studies showing up to 10 per cent of the population lives with the disorder. The rising incidence of illnesses like depression corresponds with an increased awareness of mental health, says Dr Cross. “It is a mixture of it being better diagnosed, and more readily diagnosed,” he says. “As we de-stigmatise mental illness more people are readily accepting of having a diagnosis,” – and less fearful of facing discrimination.
Despite the progress we’ve made in better understanding mental illness, many myths persist that imply people with mental illness can’t have productive lives and that they are a danger to other people. These misconceptions are “rubbish”, says Dr Cross. There is a belief that “most of my patients don’t want to work, and just want to be on benefits,” he says. “That’s absolute nonsense. They want to be contributing to our society.”
This stigma is harder for some people to overcome than others. Across the board, men are less likely to acknowledge their symptoms and seek help, leading to a tragically high suicide rate among young males. “It’s a real problem. It’s linked to this idea of weakness and machismo and that’s something we have to deal with,” says Dr Cross. A person’s experience of mental illness is also affected by their culture. “There are different levels of psychological understanding in different cultures. In some cultures it’s still seen as shameful to own up to having a mental illness,” he says. “I’m glad to say in Australia those views are definitely changing. A generation ago it was so much more difficult to talk about these things and access help.”
Men are less likely to acknowledge their symptoms and seek help, leading to a tragically high suicide rate among young males.
Through the Changing Minds book and TV series, Dr Cross has tried to give people with mental illness their own voice. “These are people, just like you and me, and they are going through a difficult time but that doesn’t make them any different.” The father of two young boys, his ultimate goal is for his sons to grow up in a society where there is no stigma attached to mental illness. “I really love my work and my patients, and I want them to be able to live as great a life as possible.”
Three things you shouldn’t say to someone with mental illness
‘How are you’
It seems innocuous but the common greeting ‘how are you’ can be impossible to answer for someone coping with mental illness. “If people want to really know they should ask, but if you don’t want to know, then don’t ask, because it’s a very loaded question,” says Dr Cross. “If you’re feeling really unwell and someone asks ‘how are you’ in passing, what do you do? Do you tell them? Then they start looking at their watch and want to go, which makes you feel even worse, because you think you’re a burden already and now you’re burdening someone with your problem.”
‘You’re looking well’
Unlike a broken leg, mental illness isn’t always visible to the outside world. Tell someone who you know is suffering depression that they are looking well and the implication is that they need to be well, even if they don’t feel it. “That’s a very hard thing for many of my patients to deal with,” says Dr Cross. “It’s a constant battle with people going, ‘you’re looking well, you’re going out, you’re going to the cinema, you must be well, why can’t you go back to work?’”
‘Just get over it’
This is the one of the least helpful things you can say to someone with depression. “That comment and those like it may not cause the depression, but they certainly make it worse,” Dr Cross writes in his book.
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