Opinion: Let’s stop keeping mental illness a secret

Mental illness remains a taboo. Photo: Ryan_M651
Mental illness remains a taboo. Photo: Ryan_M651

Mental illness. Pretty big topic, yet it remains so secretive and taboo. Why?

According to healthaction.org.nz, about 47 per cent of New Zealanders will experience a mental illness or an addiction at some time in their lives, with one in five people affected within one year. Yet people still don’t really understand what mental illness is.

Mental illnesses that usually require some sort of support or treatment include schizophrenia, manic depression, personality disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and addictions.

In some cases mental illnesses can even lead to suicide. Suicide is increasingly concerning for New Zealanders, with 500 people dying by suicide each year, and the statistics are rising.

Someone I knew recently committed suicide. The person was known to have had mental health issues, yet many people didn’t understand why they were the way they were, and were surprised when the person did pass away, myself included.

I recently watched a video on YouTube called The Suicide Experiment by Fousey Tube.

Basically, two guys hop into two different taxis and tell the drivers that “their life was rough” and that “they didn’t see the point in living”. One guy leads a driver to a bridge, and the other to a tall building. The two taxi drivers then convince the two different guys that “they have a life worth living” and that “they have people who love them”.

The video ends with one taxi driver being so affected that he wasn’t told that it was actually an experiment.

I spoke to Diana Fergusson, Student Counsellor at the Whitireia Polytechnic in Auckland, about the perception of mental illness.

“There are still a few people with the mindset that if it (suicide) is talked about it will give people the idea that it is an option,” she says.

“The majority of people who work in the community-service type jobs, feel it is safer to openly discuss suicide. This means teaching people, especially young people about the services available to them.”

I feel there are a lot of people out there, especially young people, who feel like they can’t access the services that are available to treat mental illness.

Over a 12 month period only 39 per cent of people with a mental illness had visited health services. Also people with lower educational attainment, living in rural area, Pacific people, males and younger people are less likely to go to have a health visit for a mental health reason.

Apparently the most common reason for delaying the seeking of treatment was “I thought the problem would get better by itself” (based on info from from healthaction.org.nz).

The mindset of some, including youth thinking that the health system can’t help their issues, goes to show that something needs to change.

That change being that awareness of mental illness increases to the point where every person knows what to do in a situation if a friend, workmate, relative or stranger is struggling.

Saying that, New Zealand has progressed somewhat over the years in the way mental illness is treated.

Fergusson says: “Depression and anxiety has become more widely publicised, whereas in the past it was kept extremely ‘hush hush’, denied or ignored completely.

“New Zealand is way more open about mental illness than Japan and China for instance. You will see advertising on TV (John Kirwan’s depression line for example) promoting the acceptance of those with depression, or similar.”

Fergusson also believes medication used to treat mental illness has improved.

I believe New Zealand needs more education around mental illness, especially among children and youth. When I was at school, mental illness was something that was whispered about and students felt like it wasn’t something that was supposed to be talked about.

Raising awareness and the freeness to talk about the problem will help. Assemblies, charity events, weekly support groups within schools and workplaces could all help lead to change.

People suffering from mental health issues need to be reassured that getting help isn’t scary – it’s a step in the right direction.

Getting help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Youth services: (06) 3555 906

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757

CASPER Suicide Prevention

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