We're All Mentally Ill
Just Because Everyone Seems To Agree, Doesn't Mean It's Correct.
Sometimes an issue comes along that doesn’t sound right, even though most seem to agree with what we are being told.
For example, everybody agrees that domestic violence is not OK. But why are there only ever female victims and male perpetrators? And why does the definition include non-physical violence such as refusal to speak or denial of money?
Then there’s the claim that one in five women on university campuses are victims of sexual harassment or assault. Except the definition includes “unwanted staring”.
The Productivity Commission is now telling us that Australia has a massive mental health problem, with almost half of all Australians experiencing mental illness at some point in their life. Most onsets occur before the age of 21, it says.
I have no special expertise in mental health, and mental illness is certainly a problem, yet somehow this doesn’t sound right.
Some of the figures the Commission cites are concerning: about 15% of females have self-harmed at some point in their life, twice as many as males, and females are more than twice as likely to consider or attempt suicide. Nearly a third of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders report high to very high levels of psychological distress and about 24% suffer long-term mental illness.
Among homosexuals and bisexuals, more than twice as many experience anxiety disorders, over three times as many experience mood disorders, and almost twice as many experience substance use disorders compared with heterosexual people. The numbers are even higher for transgender people.
Who hasn’t had a period in their life when coping was difficult? Who defines normal anyway?
But then we come to the definition of mental health and illness. The report defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.” Mental illness or mental disorder, it says, is “a health problem that significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with others.”
Given that, it’s a wonder only half of us have experienced mental illness. Who hasn’t had a period in their life when coping was difficult? Who defines normal anyway?
Then there’s suicide. This is now second only to heart disease for total years of life lost from disease and injury among males, with the rate steadily rising notwithstanding the resources thrown at it. The old joke about skin diseases, that there are only two things not known about them – what causes them and how to cure them – is not really a joke in relation to suicide, particularly for males.
Yet the report, noting many who die by suicide do not have diagnosed mental illness and most people with mental illness do not contemplate suicide, assumes the solution lies in additional spending to make current mental health services more widely available.
Indeed, the report’s recommendations amount to a huge spending program. It wants psychological health and safety to be as important in the workplace as physical health and safety, universal screening for mental illness for all new parents, grants to early childhood education and care services, an anti-stigma campaign, substantially increased treatment services and more treatment options including online treatment.
Perhaps some of what it proposes will make a difference if implemented, but with mental illness defined so broadly, treating those who are merely sad will inevitably result in the genuinely needy – the psychotic, delusional and dangerous – missing out.
It’s not unlike blaming all men for domestic violence or sexual assault and harassment; nobody accepts blame and the small number of actual perpetrators escape unscathed.
It is sometimes said that mental health is the last great, unconquered frontier in the medical world. It is obvious there are many more questions than answers, something we appear reluctant to admit. Perhaps if domestic violence and sexual harassment were dealt with honestly, mental health might also benefit.