The Mental Health of Our Nation

If Australia were an individual, how would you describe its psyche? What would you say about its mental health? With the diversity that our nation represents its almost impossible to answer those questions, however there are still some cultural myths that bind us together in a national identity. There may even be some common aspirations that can be unearthed.

Our responses to events give some clues to our psyche and even to the state of our mental health. And so we have a diverse response to the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. There are countless outpourings of love and support on Facebook social and mainstream media as people try to reconcile the terrible thing that has happened to two of our own. There is even anger and the desire for revenge. Then the opposite is also present with people saying they deserve what they get. Still others point to the understandable, but not justifiable inconsistencies as we pour ourselves out for these two reformed criminals, yet thousands are killed unjustly everyday without barely a whimper from our country.

Then the events on the weekend where close on 400,000 Australians braved capital city cold, chill and in some places rain to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC’s landing at Gallipoli. They came to honour not only that ill-fated landing but wherever Australian and New Zealand troops have served together.

Attendance at Dawn Services*

  • Perth – Around 70,000
  • Adelaide – 20,000 at the service
  • Canberra – 128,000
  • Melbourne – 85,000
  • Darwin – 10,000
  • Brisbane – tens of thousands
  • Hobart and Launceston – tens of thousands
  • ANZAC Cove – 10,000
  • If we could add up all the commemorations in country towns around the nation the number would be much higher

ABC News Website –

* Some of these figures may include attendance at marches after the dawn services

Whether you believe war is justifiable or like Philip Berrigan (American peace and social justice activist and former Catholic priest who used civil disobedience as a method of protest ) you are prepared to go to gaol for your stance against war, the sacrifice of those willing to lay down their lives for the ideal they held is worthy of honour.

I have always found it hard to connect with ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, I believe my Pop was involved with the airforce, but only on our shores and we never spoke about it. Others of course wear their relatives’ medals with pride and as they have gotten older and died, replaced them in the marches.

Triple J’s Hack Program used the lead up to the ANZAC Day commemorations as an opportunity to ask the question, ‘Who are we?’ It’s essentially a question of culture, national identity and what is important to us as a nation. Is what we believe to be true about ourselves, in fact true? I guess the question was spurred on by the fact that so many Australians would go out to dawn services and spend time honouring and remembering. It was even a topic of conversation down my very hipster street the night before the services.

Many would see that our involvement, particularly in World War 1 was when we began to form our national psyche or identity. Wartime became the source of so many stories and depictions of our mythic (cultural belief) character traits; our stickability, we would dig in and be there till the bitter end; ingenuity, making it work with whatever was at hand; camaraderie, that we would do anything for a mate particularly if he was in trouble; the larrikin, being in good humour almost despite the circumstances and our innate ability to party wherever we are; defying of authority, not liking rules for rules sake and believing we know better.

One of the most heroic pictures coming out of Gallipoli is the myth of self- sacrifice around Simpson and his donkey. Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick served in the 3rd Field Ambulance of the Australian Army Medical Corps. He served from the time of the landing April 25 – May 19. He worked as a stretcher- bearer, using one of the donkeys brought for transporting water, he took wounded men day and night from the fighting to the beach. He did this through deadly sniper and the most furious shrapnel fire. He was killed by machine gun whilst carrying two wounded men and was buried on the beach at Hell Spit.

So what of these things are true for today’s Australia? What of these characteristics and others are enduring? What of these things might be part of our self-perception, but not seen by other nations? When we look in the cultural mirror what do we see? And of what we see, is important to us?

With the average attender at ANZAC Cove in Turkey being a female backpacker in her 20’s, it would appear that the meaning of ANZAC day is not lost, but according to a Hack report which included an interview with young people on the streets of Brisbane there are some very mixed responses. There is a sense of we should commemorate, some even say celebrate. Others seem to value the day off more than any recognition.

However in the midst of this there is a call to identify the values that hold true rather than wearing ANZAC day as a cultural flag. How can we translate what we saw in the diggers into values that can be embraced by all Aussies? I found it interesting, hearing the responses of the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities to ANZAC Day. Many are afraid to get involved because of fear that they will be targeted in racist responses. And so the call for a more inclusive story that represents who we are needs to be heard.

One of the guests on Hack (Mon 20/4) saw the possibility of ANZAC Day becoming the world’s largest peace rally where we stop and consider the cost of war, and where we make sure we don’t go to war again. Pausing for a national day of reflection and confirming of our values sounds good to me!

So what are some things that we can take with us as in various forms we continue the conversation of our national identity, our psyche, our mental health?

Felicity Ward an Australian comedian living in London on return to Australia confirms we are so friendly, so warm, so laid back. We support the underdog and perhaps see ourselves as an underdog.

Peter Garret – former front man for Midnight Oil and former Labor politician sees that we have incredible potential to be a really good place to live. He believes that we are not as egalitarian as we were and that we need to keep an eye on that. He sees we need to embrace tolerance, respect particularly for our indigenous culture and for the planet.

Dick Smith – entrepreneur and philanthropist sees us as a fortunate, wealthy country, helpfully isolated, and with wonderful freedoms. He sees our country towns as unique to anywhere in the world.

I wonder what you would say if you had to describe our psyche or reflect on our mental health. We’ve really only just scratched the surface and already we have uncovered values such as, self sacrifice, fair go, tolerance, egalitarian, comradeship, self sacrifice, anti authority, stickability, ingenuity, laid back, larrikinism.

However, how do we go at telling these values to ourselves, what stories apart from the ANZAC story builds our myth and invites everyone to participate, including recognising the significant history of our indigenous peoples before white settlement? Are there events that lead to stories that we can experience today so that we renew our values? And if we think about how we are perceived on a world stage, as we consider the human rights atrocities we are complicit in, and our black-flip on issues relating to climate, there still seems like a lot of work to do.

But in all this please don’t despair, please don’t think the only answer is a padded cell in some asylum, when it comes to our nation’s mental health. That creating a positive national psyche or identity is impossible, because if we throw our hands up in the air, we’re just adding to the problem.

Evil prospers when good men (and women) do nothing

John Philpot Curran