We need to stop pretending mental illness isn't real

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. In one way or another, we have all been affected or known someone who has committed or attempted suicide. It’s a horrible tragedy and often the symptoms of severe depression go unnoticed even by those close to the deceased. Men, especially, are at higher risk of suicide and often hide their feelings and sadness from their families until it is too late.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that 350 million people around the world suffer from depression. About seven people take their own lives every day in Australia and more than 65,000 people attempt suicide each year. Statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2016 show that the highest suicide rates by age group and gender were men and women over the age of 85 years. It is also believed that about 10 per cent of those over 65 in Australia experience anxiety.

WHO says of depression, that it “is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.” Depression has been called “the common cold” of mental illness. In other words, most of us have probably suffered a bout of it, one time or another. Anxiety and depression are not a weakness of character – they are a health issue just like any other.

So, why do so many of us, feel uncomfortable about admitting we suffer from it? Or worse still, have a stigma around talking about it?

The question of whether mental health illnesses are real diseases is a deeply flawed one. In our society, a real disease with clear genetic, biological, or physiological symptoms gives credibility to medical intervention, understanding, and social support. Those suffering from what are deemed to be real diseases cannot be held responsible for their condition.

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If, however, a condition is not categorised as a real disease, those who have it are considered to be less deserving of care and support. There was a time when people with mental illness were considered moral failures, who were suffering from a weakness of character and hysterically seeking attention.

About 2800 Australians die every year in Australia due to suicide, but Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley says many of those deaths could be prevented. “Starting a conversation could make a real difference to someone’s life,” she said, talking about it on R U OK Day.

When Robin Williams was found dead, it took a while till they released the reason behind it, and when they did, it was revealed that it was suicide due to depression. It was widely recognised that, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the star was battling with depression and anxiety. His wife said of his death, “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

One of the greatest things to come out of the devastating news of his death was that more people recognised depression and suicide as a result of it to be a real thing, and started having more of a conversation around it too. But that seems to fade away with the memory of the star too, sadly, and the stigma slowly makes its way back, creeping into the realms of our world yet again.

This brings us to a big question…When so many of us are struggling, shouldn’t we all band together and stop acting like being “mentally ill” carries some sort of stigma? 

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If this brutal beast of an illness is strong enough to kill someone with the passion, determination, and genius of Robin Williams, then we must do everything we can to protect those who are more fragile.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact:

Lifeline – Call 13 11 14.

Suicide Call Back Service – Call 1300 659 467.

Beyond Blue – Call 1300 22 4636 – 24/7.

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Australian Men’s Shed Association – Find your nearest shed here.

Carers Australia – Call 1800 242 636.

Headspace – Call 1800 650 890.

MensLine Australia – Call 1300 78 99 78.

Has depression or anxiety affected you? If so, are you open about it or are you worried people around you will judge you?