NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Kyle MacDonald: Why do we need Mental Health Awareness Week?

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday morning Click here for the original article…

When half of us, on average, will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime, and one in four New Zealanders are currently, it’s a reasonable question. By now, shouldn’t we all be aware of what mental illness looks like?

Dealing with mental health is a constant battle against the tidal wave of denial. The history of psychotherapy is a century-long effort to demystify and promote the treatment of mental distress because, for many, their personal battle is one against their own – and societies – denial.

All mental health problems share a common cause: the experience of one’s emotions or thoughts being out of control. And at its simplest, denial is fuelled by fear. It’s very human to be terrified of losing control of our thoughts and feelings.

The other response to fear is to attempt to control that which frightens us. Some of the worst atrocities, cloaked as treatment, come from an attempt to isolate and control those who are suffering.

Asylums, institutions, historically surgeries like lobotomies and more recently the use of chemical restraint (sedating people to keep them quiet) are very real examples.

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Stigma and discrimination is the more subtle version. When we fear something, and deny we will ever suffer it, we shun those that do, and attack them for that which ails them. We put them down, push them away, and make them “not us” in an attempt to control our own fear.

That’s why successful anti-stigma campaigns confront us with the reality of everyday people: people like us and people we admire, who struggle with their mental health. They also teach us all more about what mental illness is. They combat the myths and, in reducing ignorance, reduce fear.

But it seems to just be human nature that the tidal wave of denial keeps rising up.

So Mental Health Awareness Week is one of the ways that as a society we can keep forcing back the tidal surge of denial that can so easily take hold.

It’s only one of the ways however. The Mason Report of the nineties was a national review of New Zealand’s Mental Health services. It recommended ongoing anti-stigma campaigns as well as two measures to also fight denial, the formation of the Mental Health Commission and “ringfenced” health funding.

The Commission’s job was to act as an independent watchdog over the provision of services, and “ring fencing” referred to the requirement for a certain percentage of health funding to be compulsory allocated to mental health services.

The National Government disbanded the Mental Health Commission in 2012 and recently described the ring fence of mental health funding as “flexible”. Critics describe it as non-existent.

So while we might be more open to the existence of mental illness, we also have an obligation to be aware of the denial that once more takes hold in our health system.

Fighting stigma is as much about valuing good treatment as it is about breaking down judgements and discrimination. Because what is more discriminating for people suffering mental illness than not being given access to high quality treatment and care?

• World Mental Health Day was Monday October the 10th, and this week is Mental Health Awareness week in New Zealand.


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