The Elephant In The Room Isn’t Crazy, We Just Need To Talk More About Him

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Making mental health ‘more mainstream’ starts with a bit more talking, writes Andrew Cairns.

It’s estimated that nearly half of all Australian adults will experience a mental illness or disorder in their lifetime. The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing estimates that 1 in 5 Australians have experienced a mental disorder in the last 12 months.

These figures may be surprising, but when you consider that anxiety, depression and dependence on substances such as alcohol or drugs are the most common disorders, those numbers make more sense.

With these statistics, the chances are great of each of us experiencing a mental health disorder at some stage in our lives, or certainly knowing someone we care about who will.

Mental illness can present in many different ways, and the vast majority of people living with mental disorders are highly-functioning, able to hold down jobs, maintain relationships and contribute to society. But there are plenty whose illnesses disrupt their ability to function in workplaces or have healthy relationships and many suffer debilitating disorders that prevent them from taking part in everyday activities such as grocery shopping, driving or socialising.

Australia has come a long way in accepting mental illness, but there remains a troubling stigma associated with mental disorders that often prevents those suffering to seek meaningful help. The good news is that there are services out there to help people with mental illness, but not everyone is accessing them – there is more work to be done in our families, our communities and councils and in our workplaces to connect people with the support they need. 

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People with illness and disability in our society face greater challenges – whether they suffer from chronic diseases, or from physical disabilities, or mental illness – they suffer from higher rates of unemployment and higher rates of dependence which often lead to life outcomes that are not at the standard of their healthy counterparts.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, mental health disorders including anxiety, drug and alcohol use and depression are important indicators of disability and even morbidity. While cancer makes up 18% of the top burden of disease, cardiovascular disease makes up 14%, with mental and substance disorders not far behind at 12%.

When measuring healthy life lost as a result of living with a disability, also known as a non-fatal burden of disease, mental illness is the second largest contributor (24%) in Australia.

Mental health has a significant impact on our health system and on individual households. Over 4 million people received mental health related prescriptions in 2017-18 and over $9 billion was spent on mental health related care in 2016-17 alone.

There are many constructive ways that we as communities, and as organisations can support those affected by mental illness. We must take the stigma away by not judging those who have a mental illness; we must take the time to research and ask questions of health professionals to gain insight and accurate knowledge about different conditions.

Encourage employees or friends to speak openly about their conditions and back up your support by guiding them to resources and professionals that can help them and assure them that they will not be treated any differently to anyone with a physical disability or illness. We can ask what they need in terms of support and help – and encourage them to identify healthy ways to cope if they feel unwell at work or out in public.

In organisations, there may be a need to make some workplace adjustments just as you would for someone who needs accessibility to use a wheelchair. In the context of mental illness, these are called ‘reasonable adjustments’ and can be explored with careful consideration of the law and workplace requirements.

For their part, state and territory governments are responsible for the funding of specialised mental health services. In 2013, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) allowed people with significant mental health challenges and diagnoses to access funding through NDIS. There is also NDIS funding for people who have a disability other than a psychological disability but still need mental health related services.

On a national and political level, Australians are speaking more openly about mental health. In the 2019 Federal Budget, the government announced several mental health measures including providing over $736 million in funding for mental health and suicide prevention over the next seven years.

We have a long way to go to make mental illness mainstream, but awareness and acceptance is the first step. Part of what organisations can do to support colleagues or employees with mental illness is to proudly promote a supportive workplace, to speak openly about it and to offer and encourage mental health days.

Destigmatising mental illness is important in workplaces; it encourages people suffering to know that seeking help is a good thing. There is help out there and the more we talk about it, the greater the chances are of empowering those who need help, to seek it.

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Andrew Cairns

After more than 30 years working in the corporate sector, Community Sector Banking CEO Andrew Cairns believes that business can, and should be a force for good. Andrew joined Community Sector Banking, Australia’s not-for-profit banking specialist, as its CEO in March 2016, after a long career working nationally and internationally across a variety of industries – from manufacturing and the service industry to telecommunications, including 15 years within the Bendigo & Adelaide Bank Group. Passionate about community and social justice, Andrew saw in the role a compelling opportunity to both do good business and be a good business. A firm believer in social responsibility and contributing where you can, Andrew is actively engaged in the not-for-profit and community sectors. He is a Director of Haven; Home, Safe which provides not only critical shelter, but social, physical and mental support to those in need, and serves as Chair of the Coliban Water Authority, a life essential service for communities. He lives in Harcourt in regional Victoria with his wife and two sons.

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