Let's talk Mental Health!

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Recently I had pause to stop and consider how much I have learned since I decided to get involved in changing the way that people talk about and treat mental health. It was only just over two years ago that I volunteered to get involved in implementation of the new WA Mental Health Act (Potential for Culture Change from the new WA Mental Health Act) and so began a voyage of discovery and exponential growth in my knowledge and understanding of mental health issues. Needless to say, much of this knowledge and understanding has been gleaned by having conversations with other people, and being willing to listen to and learn from them. All these conversations were sparked by my own lived experience of mental health issues, which I have written about in some other blogs (for example, Stories from the Edge; Reawakening - a Spiritual Journey of Recovery from Mental Illness). 

I had never heard the term 'lived experience' when my journey began, but I now understand that this means people who have lived with a mental health condition or lived alongside someone with one. I also came across the term 'expert by experience' meaning that through our lived experiences we become experts in mental health, out of necessity. Sometimes, mental health is referred to as 'secret squirrel business' - there is even a book by that name written by people with lived experience, which is well worth a read (Secret Squirrel Business - a Guide to Mental Health Recovery).

I have tried to summarise what I want to share with you in a series of three graphics. What I hope to convey to you is how broad and complex the topic of mental health can be, the types of issues involved and how people who live with mental health conditions (or care for those that do) may need a broad level of support. I hope you will agree by the end of this article that mental health is everyone's business and we should all be prepared to 'talk mental health'. 

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The first graphic (above) depicts for you the backgrounds of the hundreds of people I have met, talked with and listened to about mental health, some of whom I have also worked alongside and many of whom I now count as friends. Having a lived experience with which to start those conversations and build relationships, quickly opened up the dialogue and generated broad engagement. My conversations have by no means encompassed everyone who is interested in or affected by mental health issues, so my exploration and learning will no doubt continue as long as I have the stamina and interest to engage in it.

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The second graphic (above) tries to convey to you how broad my conversations about mental health have been, and the number and complexity of the issues we've talked about. My conversations started with talking about Western Australia's mental health system, which is under great pressure and undergoing a massive reform, and everyone agrees that navigating through it if you are managing a mental health condition is challenging (Flying Blind! Navigating the Mental Health System). People with a lived experience are active in those conversations because the system doesn't always work for us (MAD - the worst and best of mental health experiences). Some people with lived experience are active in changing the system from the inside out, being employed as peer workers in various capacities (Life Matters: Lived Experience in the Mental Health Sector; Who is a Peer Support Worker? How could they help you?). Some people are active as representatives on mental health service working groups or in mental health networks, or as consultants or advisors to our Mental Health Commission. Others are working with universities, TAFEs or hospitals to change the way that clinicians (and future) clinicians work with people who have a mental health issue and their carers.

In order for me to contribute to sector reform from a lived experience perspective I had to be courageous enough to share my mental health journey with other people. Working as a mental health advocate and advisor meant that I had to translate my own and other people's experiences into general lessons to share with others. These are not often straight forward or light-hearted conversations, although sometimes there was humour. Often the conversation engendered controversy, debate, disagreement and compromise, i.e., not plain sailing! 

It is strange to step out of such in-depth conversations and then encounter people in society who are totally ignorant about mental health issues and some who are intolerant or prejudiced too (Mental Illness - What's Your View?). I still remember when I was one of the ignorant ones and wondered how on earth someone could want to kill themselves who seemed to have a perfectly normal life, or how to treat someone who was had depression yet was able to smile and chat with me as though there was nothing wrong. There are some great voices of lived experience writing for 'The Mighty' about what it's like to step into those shoes, if you are curious.

Stigma is one of the issues that underpins our reluctance to talk about mental health. It was for this reason that I started a social media campaign called 'Mental Illness - It's Not Who I Am' to show that people with mental health issues come from all backgrounds, their mental health label does not define them and they are integrated into society (News from the Campaign). If talking about mental health is hard, talking about suicide is even harder. It's a topic that variously causes fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame and grief (Talking About Suicide: Having a Challenging Conversation). Yet this is something our society MUST talk about because 8 Australians a day now die by suicide and people with a lived experience of suicide can make a difference (Talking About Suicide: Alternatives to Suicide).

As I started digging even deeper into understanding mental health, I started to discover there are many inter-related, far-reaching and often co-occurring issues, with alcohol and other drug addictions coming up all the time in the context of people's needs not being met. People with mental health and addiction issues are some of the most marginalised and vulnerable in our society. If on top of that, you were born Aboriginal, then you are even less likely to be surviving, let alone thriving. Listening to the voices of Aboriginal people about how to address this situation has probably been the most rewarding experience of my journey (Listen and Learn; Aboriginal Yarning at the Mental Health Conference; What do you know about Aboriginal Mental Health?).

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There is hope (The Hope Stone)! People can and do recover from mental health issues (Mental Health Recovery - What does it mean?). Individuals, families and communities can flourish again. However, my last graphic (above) depicts the scope of support that people can need in order to recover their health and their lives. Mental health is not something you can compartmentalise into one part of your life. Everyone's recovery journey is unique and a 'one size fits all' approach does not work.

Employment is a key component to flourishing and thriving, which is why I have become proactive in talking about mental health in the workplace. It makes sense for employers, as well as employees, to invest in a mentally healthy workplace (Why should employers care about psychosocial risk management?). I believe it starts with addressing stigma and hopefully translates into building a resilient workplace (Why we should build Mentally Resilient Workplaces). There are things that help and things that get in the way of building a mentally resilient workplace (Barriers and Enablers in dealing with Workplace Mental Health Issues). It all starts though with being able to talk about mental health (Talking about Mental Health Issues in the Workplace).

Thank you for wandering with me through my tapestry of conversations about mental health. I hope that you have gained some insight from this summary and have maybe been tempted to read a few of the other blogs referred to along the way. If you want to know more or need help in some way, contact me and let's talk mental health!