As a society, is this our responsibility?

[Warning: this article deals with mental illness, suicide and depression and may distress some readers. If you or a loved one needs support please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.]

Over the past week or two the media has been swamped with horrific stories. Lives have been lost, families have been torn apart and we have no real cause to blame. We can’t put the events on true terrorism, we can’t put the events down to anything racial. But what we can do is look at the facts. Right now, I am referring to two particular events – the Martin Place siege and the murder of eight children in Cairns. The Martin Place siege was orchestrated by a man who had known criminal history, who didn’t have a proper affiliation with a terrorist group but who had a disturbed – almost brainwashed – mindset. The mother of the eight children who has been arrested for the murders was believed to be a loving, caring mother who would do almost anything for her children. These are the things her friends and family said about her. They are still in shock about what has happened because they never imagined it or saw it coming.

I personally believe that in both of these cases, these people are suffering with mental illness. What type, I am not sure, but to do these things, that is the only logical reason I can fathom. And because of this I’m asking the question, is it our responsibility to know the warning signs? Is it our responsibility to be aware of the warning signs and look for help?

I am speaking from personal experience when I delve into the world of mental illness. My uncle was always a strong man and he had somewhat of a drinking problem too. When his wife divorced him, he began drinking heavily again and was even more aggressive. He fell into a cycle of self loathing, blaming himself for the divorce. When his brother tried to speak to him about it he reacted with incredible aggression and physically hurt him so no one in my family broached the subject again. We knew he was depressed and we knew he needed help, we could see it. But that conversation was too difficult and too risky so we left it alone. It took a suicide attempt before anyone could broach the subject with him.

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The reason I share this with you is because we chose to not have the difficult conversation. We felt it would do more harm than good to ourselves and our relationship. We are lucky that he survived, we are lucky he was able to get his life together again and get back on track. Because the “what if” is dire – and we would have never forgiven ourselves.

Some cases of mental illness have no signs and symptoms. Sometimes people suffer in silence. But there are some things we need to look out for. A change in personality, reclusion from family and friends, a change in behaviours, a change in lifestyle, addiction, aggression, compulsion or obsession – these are all things we need to look for.

Instead of putting it down to something else, we need to open our eyes and see that so often these behaviours are symptomatic. The conversations may be difficult to have and so many people may not know how to even broach the subject let alone discuss it, but as a society we have a responsibility to do it.

What is intervention was there for either of the above cases? We will never know if it could have saved the innocent lives lost, but we do know that whether right or wrong, mental illness is something that should never be taken lightly and it is something we should all familiarise ourselves with because having that small amount of education could one day save a life.

Tell us, do you think we need to be more educated about mental illness? Do we need to accept responsibility that having those difficult conversations is something we need to do? Share your thoughts in the comments below…