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Removing the stigma from mental illness

In his reflection for Mental Health Week (10-17 October), ANDY HAMILTON SJ says that it is time that we remove the stigma from mental illness and instead celebrate the gifts that people who experience mental illness bring to our diverse society.

Mental illness brings terrible pain and bewilderment to people who experience it. It puts great pressures on the relationships that connect them to one another and to their world, often causing hopelessness and lethargy and leading to withdrawal from friends, family, social life and work. Friends and families may feel defeated and withdraw from them at a time when they need the most support. All might withdraw into shame and silence.

This is the stigma that attaches to mental illness. Because it so affects people’s lives and is so mysterious, others can fear and flee from it. They keep silent about it with friends who suffer from it at a time when they lack the energy and the words to describe what they are suffering. It can lead to a deadly silence, as people feel blamed, ashamed and excluded. Both they and those close to them live a shadow life that is anything but life to the full.

Stigma does not simply affect personal relationships. It can also poison public attitudes to mental illness. People associate it with fear-laden images of people who are not like us, who behave strangely and are often violent and unpredictable. People who are to be protected from and excluded, not protected. This prejudice perhaps helps to explain the familiar cycle of public neglect of the needs of people who are mentally ill, of outrage at the discovery that they are neglected, of public enquiries, and of continued neglect by governments. Society and governments alike often turn their eyes away from people who suffer from mental illness.

Mental illness is not just a medical condition. It is linked to a network of personal and social relationships that inhibit life. A child who grows up in a violent and impoverished home, is ostracised at school and unable to learn, has no access to home care, cannot find work, lives in an environment where drugs and alcohol are abused, and lacks models of healthy personal relationships, is likely also to suffer from anxiety, depression or other forms of mental illness.

We all need to be involved in the response to mental illness. Governments need to address the disadvantage that contributes to it, and we need to change from seeing people with mental illness as a problem to see them as a gift. Living life to the full rests on embracing the light that shines in the darkness, particularly in the people who live courageously within these places, and in the many people who visit them in their need: engaging prisoners in conversation, supporting refugees and inviting them into nurturing communities, and supporting our Indigenous fellow Australians in their demand for respect.

People who live with mental illness are not marginal in our society, and ought not to be treated so. They are a gift which if received, will bless society. They call on us to notice, listen to them, and to draw on our compassion. We, our family, our friends or our children may well find ourselves among them.