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The Stigma and Misunderstandings Surrounding Mental Illness

I was alerted to the publication of the article below by a colleague who has worked in the field of mental illness for over two decades. It was written by Jaelea Skehan, who is the Director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health in Australia.

Read her article below and you will see a clear example of why mental illness remains a problem for sufferers due to the inability of people in this woman’s position to have even a modicum of understanding of the pain that sufferers endure on a daily basis. The article below illustrates yet another reason why the stigma of mental illness remains, despite the good intensions of many professionals who possess an understanding that this woman clearly lacks.

In short, Ms Skehan uses World Mental Health Day to write an article, nominally about life transitions, but which highlights the dread she feels at “transitioning” from 39 to 40. She even gives the readers tips on coping with such a life transition.

This woman, who is in a position to write about issues far more meaningful than her own transition from 39 to 40, trivialises mental illness by writing this article on World Mental Health Day. The newspaper that published it is also implicated in propagating the idea that mental illness is something that is easily gotten over, and that it is simply a question of thinking in a different way.

Is it any wonder the stigma of mental illness persists? If professionals (Ms Skehan is a psychologist) can waste opportunities to write articles like this, we still have a lot to do to encourage people to come forward without fear of their illness being trivialised.

Read her article below:

EMBRACE CHANGE FOR GOOD (Newcastle Herald, October 10, 2015)
By Jaelea Skehan

OCTOBER is mental health month with World Mental Health Day being celebrated this Saturday, October 10.

It’s a really good time to focus on our own mental health and wellbeing and to embrace this year’s theme of ‘‘value your mind’’.

I have recently been reminded just how important this is – especially during life transitions or changes. Later this month I turn 40, and to be honest with you I’ve been struggling with the prospect of going from an age starting with ‘‘3’’ to one that starts with ‘‘4’’.

Perhaps this seems like an insignificant change to some people, but for me the prospect of this next birthday has filled me with some dread.

I share this with you, not for sympathy or more birthday cards, but to illustrate an important point about mental health that often goes undiscussed.

Life transitions are difficult. In fact, they are particularly risky periods for poorer mental health.

We often think about transitions in terms of age-specific social changes – a child starting school for the first time, a young person transitioning from primary school to high school, a young adult leaving the education environment to get their first job, or perhaps an older person preparing for retirement.

Transitions can also occur because of life circumstances – changing a job, moving to a different location, experiencing a long-term relationship break-up or entering parenthood for the first time.

While all of these scenarios may be different, each can come with a sense of fearfulness about the future and lead to someone reflecting on who they are and who they want to be.

A young person entering high school may experience a range of social and emotional changes and start thinking about their place in the world.

Add changing hormones, intense emotions and a tendency to compare yourself to others at this age, and it is obvious that this period of life can pose risks to someone’s mental health and wellbeing.

But all life stages, transitions and changes come with their own challenges. While many of us may dream of the day when we can have our time to ourselves and retire from work, the loss of meaningful activity, routines and identity can be really challenging for many people.

In the same way even those who look forward to parenthood can find the transition to having responsibility for a person other than themselves quite overwhelming.

So I came to the realisation that being challenged by the prospect of entering a new decade was entirely reasonable for me. What isn’t reasonable, however, is approaching the date without respecting and understanding the emotional impact it is having and without thinking about what I was going to do to ensure I got through it.

So here are some tips for all of you who may be experiencing a sudden or planned change and those, like me, who are transitioning to a new life stage.

  • Recognise that it is OK to have a range of feelings about the change. It is normal to feel sad, angry, frustrated, confused, fearful or overwhelmed.
  • Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to feel and function at a less-than-optimal level for a period of time.
  • Look after yourself. Eating well, sleeping well and exercising means you will have more energy to cope with emotions.
  • Don’t feel you need to go through the change alone. Sharing your feelings with family and friends, or those that have been through similar experiences can be helpful. Sometimes the act of verbalising how you feel can be a relief.
  • Keep routines and add in things you enjoy. It is important not to spend all of your time focusing on the change. Keep regular activities and plan things you can look forward to.
  • Reframe how you are feeling about the change. While through every transition there will be something that you lose, there will also be opportunities that you gain. Focus more on the things you can change rather than the things you can’t change.


Finally, make a decision to prioritise your own mental health and wellbeing through the transition or change you are experiencing, but, more importantly, try and make your mental health a priority every day.

A practical way to do this, and a great first step, could be to make a World Mental Health Day promise by logging on to 1010.org.au

The mental health promise I made to myself this year was to ‘‘embrace turning 40 and treat every year of life as a gift’’.

I have shared it with family, friends and colleagues and now I’m sharing it with you.

What promise will you make to yourself?


Jaelea Skehan is the director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health

 

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