It’s a sad and often over-quoted fact that more people commit suicide in this lucky country each year than die on the roads (over 2,000 versus around 1,000), yet the subject of mental health, which is pretty integral to that particular statistic, remains largely off topic. That is, unless it’s being used by the celebrity du jour as an excuse for their; affair, embezzling, violent outbursts or drug use.
If you went solely off the media representations of mental illness you would have to believe that all people with a mental illness are violent, unhinged, non-functional, completely out-of-control reprobates. Why would anyone want to voluntarily put up their hand to join that group?
However, the truth is so far removed from the media hype as to be embarrassing to the journalists who report it as fact. The real truth is far less sensational or sexy (which is probably why it doesn’t get much play). In fact, it’s closer to the inspirational Facebook memes that often do the rounds – how’s that for terrifying? Facebook memes more accurate than mainstream media reporting!
I don’t know what that means for anti-vaxxers and paleo-dieters, but for those with mental illness, it boils down to this:
- Mental illness really can affect anyone – any age, any gender, any socioeconomic status, any occupation and at any time. While those factors may influence what kind of treatment you have access to, they have nothing to do with who is affected.
- Mental illness encompasses everything from acute stress reactions following a traumatic event to major depression and other mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and anxiety-based illnesses.
- Mental illness is in NO WAY a sign of weakness. It’s an illness. There may be vulnerabilities in your genetic make-up or early life experiences that made some people more susceptible to a particular disorder, but blaming someone for their mental illness makes about as much sense as blaming them for, or expecting them to snap out, of a cancer diagnosis.
- 90% of people with a mental illness have absolutely no history of violence.
- The majority of people in Australia affected by a mental illness won’t seek professional help (around 65%). Can you imagine if 65% of people with a broken leg never went to the doctors?
- The majority of Australians with a mental illness are everyday, functioning children, adolescents and adults who don’t use their mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, but often suffer in silence rather than face potential stigma from family, friends or co-workers.
- Help really does help. For those who attend appropriate professional services, the course of their illness tends to be shorter and less severe and they are less likely to relapse in the future.
While treatment for acute or chronic mental illness is incredibly important work for all psychologists, and deserves a much more even-handed and well-informed nationwide discussion, it’s equally important to realise that a diagnosable mental illness isn’t the only reason for seeking professional help.
Psychology, literally, means the study of the mind and its functions. But more than that, it’s the study of people and behaviour and relationships and why we do the things we do. I’m willing to admit that I have a pretty strong bias given my chosen profession, but I haven’t met too many people in life that wouldn’t have benefited from some objective, professional guidance in at least one of these areas at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s getting an outside perspective on career choices or family dynamics, or that elusive work/life balance. Maybe you need to learn how to deal with having an adorable 8-year old child who turned into the demon spawn from hell at age 13. Or maybe you can’t figure out why you always seem to pick the same no-good partners/jobs/friends.
All of these are good and valid reasons for seeking therapy and I hope one day we can see this type of therapeutic support as no different from getting an accountant to help with your taxes. Especially because, ideally, addressing these kinds of issues early on, also reduces the likelihood of bigger issues coming up down the track.
So, the moral of the story, you don’t need to be “crazy” to need a psychologist, you just need to need someone to listen and help guide you to your own answers. What’s so crazy about that?