Neighbourliness: A Key to Mental Health

Despite not being a sports fan, it’s obvious the murder of Phil Walsh has had massive ramifications for the Adelaide Crows and the AFL more generally. Not to mention the devastation that has been played out on the Walsh family, as they come to terms with the murder and the alleged actions of one of their own. The word tragic doesn’t come close.

Of course as always there’s lots of speculation associated with events such as this. Initially it was thought that Walsh’s son, Cy was on Ice, this has been downplayed by investigators, with Cy being held at Nash House Mental Health Facility, in Adelaide (http://goo.gl/OF0vK3). With this tragic event most likely being perpetrated by someone with a mental illness, it got me thinking about mental health in our country. In many circles there still seems to be a stigma attached to acknowledging that you have a mental health issue. As many will know this has become a live one for me as I continue to suffer with anxiety.

I’ve recently been rekindling an old friendship, on our first meeting after a number of years he told me about his recent journey with Bi-Polar and some of the ups and downs that have ensued. Like my anxiety, for the most part his Bi-Polar is under control. For both of us this is partly because of medication, great support networks and partly because of deliberate choices to not let the illness take over our lives.

Sadly for many with a mental illness this is not the case and they are left to flounder in isolation and sometimes in quiet (or noisy) despair. Misunderstandings around mental health in Australia are surprising with one in five Aussies aged 16-85 experiencing a mental illness in any year. The most common forms of illness are depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorder. 8.5% of Australians have two or more disorders often referred to as complex. Almost half of our population will experience a mental illness in their lifetime… yet we continue to not talk openly about these issues.

I wonder if this plays a factor in the 65% of people with a mental illness not accessing any treatment. And for those who do seek help, it may not come in the form they expect due to serious problems in detection and accurate diagnosis (http://goo.gl/3Av2Si). The statistics roll on with women more likely than men to seek help, and the older you get the less likely you are to experience a mental illness (http://goo.gl/P38p5f). Surprisingly for many, the connection between mental illness and violence is not automatic, with 90% of people suffering mental illness having no history of violence.

Unfortunately for the Walsh family it seems Cy maybe in that 10% where mental illness and violence collide. However despite what can often be a disturbing exterior most people with mental illness are looking for connection and a sense that they can be understood and respected. Organisations like Beyond Blue seek to diminish the stereotype and even encourage us to ask RUOK. Perhaps that simple question with a little bit of knowledge might go someway to helping include people who quite often feel on the outer of society.

We live in an affordable housing complex and Amy asked an interesting question, do the people in the front office, who deal with all kinds of issues arising from an eclectic bunch of residents know mental health first aid? The concept is similar to physical first aid. It draws on the fact that many people do not get professional help or delay doing so. An informed person in their social circles could help them navigate the options available to get the appropriate assistance. They are also able to help in a mental health crisis. For example, if a person is feeling suicidal, harming themselves, having a panic attack or being acutely psychotic, the skilled helper can reduce the risk of the person coming to harm. Since 2001, 1% of the total adult population of Australia have received this training, but its not enough (https://goo.gl/dOWqnQ). I wonder if someone in Cy Walsh’s social circle had been in a position to apply mental health first aid, could the tragedy have been avoided?

Perhaps a well-informed neighbour can make all the difference? Urban Seed and Life Expedition (community development organisations in Melbourne’s CBD) are running Good Neighbour month during July. Their grand vision is to see neighbourhoods, cities and nations transformed through good neighbourliness, into spaces where everyone has a place to belong. They see the key to this being compassion (http://goo.gl/xNwauF). If compassion could be cultivated in the places and spaces that we occupy what difference would it make to how we experience work, home, our local community? Instead of seeing people as strangers to be feared or at least to be wary of would we instead be open and recognise them as neighbours we haven’t met yet?

In this way I wonder if we would uncover at least some of those around us who are suffering a mental illness exacerbated by loneliness and shame?

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