The importance of mental health and emotional wellbeing – what are we waiting for?

Mental health is defined as a state of emotional and psychological well-being in which an individual is able to use his or her cognitive and emotional capabilities, function in society and meet the ordinary demands of everyday life. By the simplest of definitions, mental health and emotional wellbeing is essential in order to function well as a human being in our complex society juggling a diverse number of supportive and in some cases, non-functional interpersonal relationships.

From skull drills to happy pills, the history of the treatment of mental health is a shocking inditement of a fear, ignorance and cruelty. As Matthew Smith Ph.D documents in his online article, ‘The Long, Mad Century’, (www.psychology.com.au), the nineteenth century can be seen as the period in which the psychiatric asylum became the predominant place where people with mental health conditions were treated. Depicted in vast numbers of frightening feature films and B grade horror movies, the asylum was a feared place. The prisoners from the Bastille in 1789 marked the first people to be confined as a result of ‘Enlightenment optimism’. This ‘rational’ approach to mental illness, included the belief that ‘madness’ could be eliminated along with other physical health problems.

The name of British legislation is a dead giveaway – Madhouse Act of 1774 and ‘County Asylums Act 1808, however after Lunacy Act and the County Asylum Act 1845, the building of asylums began in earnest. After the 1845 Act, asylums were build in bucolic, rural settings. Contemporary legislation focused on improving sanitation and promoting compassionate social reform, was intended to translate into ‘state-of-the-art humane care in spacious idyll settings’. The moral treatment, according to Smith, 2014, was a mixture of talk therapy, occupational therapy, a familial atmosphere and time out from the stresses of modern life. The real life practice was grealty determined upon your social class, economic position and those caregivers whose administered treatments. No doubt, this employment attracted among those that wanted to make a difference, sociopaths and other people untrained to deal with the complexity of mental health conditions.

We have the soldiers of the First World War to thank for shift of the perception of ‘blame’ from an individual to circumstance. The pure numbers of soldiers suffering ‘shell shock’ lead to a more sympathetic approach to the treatment of this new disorder, and the recognition of the importance of community settings. Soldiers eventually returned to the community, in vast numbers requiring ongoing treatment. The elephant was simply too large to conceal.

On this day, April 15, 2015, the Australian Federal Government has yet to released the long awaited National Mental Health Commission report into Australia’s mental health services. There has been some media speculation and leaked snippets of the reports including one recommendation that current health funding be shifted from acute care to community based mental health services. The report says that the current system is a ‘massive drain on people’s wellbeing’. (www.radioaustralia.net.au)

In Australia, 7 people commit suicide per day. Over a five year period form 2009 – 2013, the average number of suicides deaths per year was 2, 461 ( www. mindframe-media.info) In 2013, approximately 75% of people who died by suicide were males and 25% were females.We lose our loved ones to emotional instability and states of mental anguish, in a country that is considered ‘lucky’ by thousands of people who risk their lives to live on our soil.

My childhood was peppered with the impact of the mental health of my adopted brother, who was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. In Queensland in the 1970’s, treatment included electric-convulsive therapy or shock therapy  requiring informed consent which my parents gave, in pure desperation of a solution to his mania and unpredictable violent behaviour, most of which was drug induced. He had this treatment at 17 years of age. It cured his violence, but it stole his personality, will to achieve and his memory. He had been under the care of ‘specialists’ since 5 when he displayed irrational behaviours and did not demonstrate the normal parameters of risk evaluation. Caring for my brother, was my mother’s full time job. My brother attempted suicide regularly throughout my childhood and bears the scars of his attempts hidden beneath the sleeves of his shirt. There were times that my parents wished that they hadn’t found him, and his mental anguish could be silenced. His cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs would have brought down Thor. He lives now in a hostel for alcoholics. He is broken, beyond repair.

I have no more tolerance for the ‘toughen up princess’ attitude of the laconic Australian male! The men of our nation, especially in rural settings are suffering, through hardships in which death appears to be the only release. It is a shameful state of affairs. In a world where our agricultural future is determined by smart farming practices, and the health of our nation depends on high quality organic produce, the very skilled labour and expertise to do so, is being crushed by climate and financial debt, and the stupid small minded policies of politicians and multinational greed.

In our cities, our fast paced over stimulated life of excess and economic instability is resulting in a generation of drug addicts who are seeking either to escape or to survive by producing ‘death in pills’ for others. What are we waiting for? We need to shift the rhetoric to the recognition of ’emotional wellbeing and mental health’ as a human right. Perhaps then we will stop expecting people to ‘harden up’ but rather to actively protect their emotional wellbeing and mental health as a priority. It may be in the normalisation of this behaviour, that seeking assistance to maintain the balance is as commonplace as signing up for a gym membership, going for a run, playing competitive sport, mediating or spending time in nature. Just something that we all do to function well in our society and as such it is recognised as essential and funding is provided at the grassroots where intervention can lead to prevention of loss.

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