Increasing mental health visibility

By Adolfo Aranjuez
Mary & Max

Last month, American actor Kristen Bell reflected on her struggles with depression and anxiety, arguing in Time magazine’s Motto: “When you try to keep things hidden, they fester and ultimately end up revealing themselves in a far more destructive way than if you approach them with honesty.”

She isn’t the only big name to have spoken up about mental-health issues in recent times. Last year alone, several celebrities – including Glenn Close, Kristen Stewart and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – argued for increasing understanding about psychological wellbeing (BuzzFeed published a handy listicle on this in December). Closer to home, Ruby Rose Instagrammed a heartfelt message in late March for those who, like her, suffer from depression.

As Bell rightfully pointed out, “There is such an extreme stigma about mental health issues”. And the peculiar thing is that – in Australia, at least – this isn’t because psychology and psychiatry are absent from the public agenda. In November 2015, for example, the federal government announced significant changes to our mental-health scheme, following recommendations from the National Mental Health Commission.

The prevalence of psychology-related issues is staggering. University of Sydney’s Sebastian Rosenberg asserts that mental illness is “the third-biggest chronic disease in Australia … affecting 4–5 million people each year”. Mental Health Australia (MHA) outlines that around 46 per cent of Australians have faced a mental-health problem at some point in their lifetime, with mental disorders comprising 14.2 per cent of the country’s total health burden.

Yet, according to MHA, only a third of individuals with mental illness have sought professional help. In a similar vein, Heads Up has found that just 52 per cent of employees deem their workplace psychologically “healthy”; those who don’t are even less likely to admit to having mental-health struggles. A study recently released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has determined that only 6 per cent of all overseas-born, non-English-speaking Australians avail of mental-health-related services when difficulties arise.

The importance of foregrounding mental health, as Bell and Rose have done, cannot be overstated. But reticence isn’t uncommon – even I’m not immune. In 2014, I chaired the National Young Writers’ Festival panel “Invisible Illness”; there, despite the obvious reality that I myself am bedfellows with brain demons (I wouldn’t have been leading the discussion, otherwise!) – I wasn’t comfortable naming my illnesses for the audience.

Since then, I’ve grown confident in sharing that I have bipolar-II as well as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (full-blown) and disorder (slight); that I’m plagued by anxiety and panic attacks; that I have sub-threshold borderline personality disorder; that I experienced severe grief throughout 2015; that I regularly see a psychologist and take medication. (In the past, I also saw a psychiatrist, but broke up with him due to his unpleasant approach to therapy – a story for another time.)

Still, my protracted reservations about owning my issues – likely paralleling others’ reluctance to open up or seek medical intervention – can partly be attributed to the relative scarcity of mental-health-related discourse on a societal level. This problem isn’t helped by the not-so-favourable way mental illness is depicted on screen.

Writing for The Conversation, researcher Fincina Hopgood contends that mainstream screen texts dealing with mental illness tend to rely on stereotypical characters such as the “loony” (as in Me, Myself & Irene), the “idiot savant” (see: Rain Man) and the “psycho killer” (as in Alfred Hitchock’s eponymous film) – characters “presented as spectacle for our entertainment or titillation”.

Cuckoos Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Relatedly, film critic Darren Mooney cites a 1983 study by psychiatrist George Domino, which ascertained that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest contributed to negative perceptions of mental illness. Mooney also references University of Berkeley’s Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, who has identified popular culture’s “automatic association of mental illness with violence” (a fallacy, given that the likelihood of a person with mental illness physically harming someone else is only 0.005 per cent).

Thankfully, alongside these are more positive depictions. Hopgood praises the makers of Silver Linings Playbook, The Black Balloon and Mary and Max for being faithful to real-world experiences of bipolar, autism and Asperger’s syndrome, respectively. Moreover, in a subsequent Conversation article, she quotes Stand Up for Mental Health founder David Granirer’s assertion that “humour can be a powerful form of therapy as well as being a taboo buster”.

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

Through increased visibility, we can help policymakers and the general public realise that mental-health problems are more prevalent than they appear.

Laughter need not be destructive – series like Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me and campaigns like the ABC’s Mental As (which features comedy programs such as Felicity’s Mental Mission) use levity to broach tricky topics. But it’s worth remembering the distinction between “laughing at” and “laughing with” individuals troubled by illness. More broadly, when engaging with stories about mental health, what’s key is the difference between sympathy and empathy – something University of Houston’s Brené Brown has articulately, accessibly delineated in this beautiful animation.

Mental health may not be absent from Australia’s collective consciousness, but the federal government apportions only 8 per cent of the total health budget to it. Through increased visibility, we can help policymakers and the general public realise that mental-health problems are more prevalent than they appear. Celebrities like Rose, researchers like Hopgood, and even initiatives like Mindframe – which offers advice on how to sensitively report on and portray mental health – are contributing significantly to this.

The Black Balloon

The Black Balloon

At the same time, it’s imperative that we avoid turning those with psychological difficulties into mere statistics or posterchildren. There is bravery in “coming out” and persevering daily despite hardship, as Bell has done, but there is bravery, too, in confronting such realities, challenging perceptions and deepening understanding – which we must all do for one another. To truly empathise means to see those afflicted by mental illness as human: to give us faces, dimensions, depth.