Words by Jordan White
Feature image by Oliver White
Content warning: This piece discusses suicide and may be triggering for some readers.
My father was many things; placid, artistic, caring. But he was also mentally ill. He lived with major depression and borderline personality disorder. These illnesses were a part of him; they didn’t make him. But the sad reality is, in the end, they were internalised enough to break him.
During an episode, he sought help at a hospital but was turned away as many people with mental illnesses are. It was summer and I still wonder whether or not the sun was really shining that day.
Alone and distressed, he allegedly robbed a video store of $120 with a screwdriver. He died by hanging at the Adelaide Remand Centre six weeks later, still pending trial for an apparent petty crime.
I’m not here to point fingers at the cracks in our mental health systems or society. And I know it’s not great to pave the past in ifs and hypotheticals. But maybe that one bad episode could have ended differently, had mental illnesses been less stigmatised.
The worst part is my Mum never knew about his illness. Naive, some might say, but mental illnesses were so shameful that Dad couldn’t show that part of himself, even to the people he loved. Society deemed his suffering shameful and so he suffered silently.
For far too long, mental illnesses have been stigmatised and hidden by society. In the middle ages, people with mental illnesses were apparently possessed by the devil and therefore burned at the stake. In the nineteenth century, asylums designed to nurse the ‘insane’ back to health gained popularity. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of people with schizophrenia were sterilised or killed in Nazi Germany.
All of these horrific circumstances have operated around the assumption that people with mental illnesses are inherently ‘different’ or ‘wrong’. This is where the stigma—a societal connotation of disgrace and shame—stems from. Some view people with mental illnesses as black sheep, a mark on society.
Indeed, our understanding of mental illnesses has certainly come a long way since the grim instances mentioned above. Maybe society has certainly come a long way since the early 00s, too, but the stigma lingers.
People are still defined by their illnesses. Words like ‘psycho’ and ‘crazy’ are thrown around in the comment sections of social media. In pop culture, characters with mental illnesses are often portrayed as violent or harmful (look no further than Psycho or Split).
Painting people with mental illnesses as ‘the other’ is not trivial. The unfortunate consequence is people who are too afraid to speak out; people suffering silently because they’re too ashamed of how society views their illness.
I want you to imagine if cancer was stigmatised. Imagine a person with cancer not seeking medical help because they’re too ashamed of their illness. Some might even choose to suffer in silence, feeling shameful and hopeless over something they have no control over. Sounds ridiculous, right?
For many, it’s still a sad reality. People are discriminated against or reluctant to seek help because their mental illness is stigmatised by society.
20 per cent of Australians aged 16 to 85 experience mental illness any year, according to the Black Dog Institute. 54 per cent of these people do not access any treatment, perhaps because they’re too ashamed or scared to. It goes without saying that a disorder left untouched cannot get any better.
Each day, six Australians die by suicide. There are a further thirty attempts. Every day. Someone loses a child, a parent, a sibling.
Men are particularly vulnerable. The suicide rate of males is more than three times greater than females, according to ABS data. Men are known for bottling things up and unlikely to seek help.
We’ve all heard it. It’s not “blokey” to show emotion. Men don’t cry.
Firstly, fuck these outdated gender stereotypes and the notion of masculinity. And fuck fragile masculinity, too. Of course men cry. Everyone does, we all feel emotion and struggle from time to time. It’s a part of the human condition.
I mean not to undermine the progress society has made towards breaking mental health stigmas. We have national days like R U OK? day. There’s brilliant organisations like Beyond Blue, who educate people about mental illnesses to help break down miss-conceptions. But we still have a long way to go.
Any suicide rate is far too high, and outdated gender stereotypes persist, although we know they do more harm than good.
We need to make more progress to end the stigma. Fixing the problem begins by acknowledging that there is one. Accept mental illnesses as normal and valid. Remind people that it’s okay to not be okay, and never be afraid to talk about your emotions. Next you ask someone ‘how are you?’ ask them again: ‘how are you, really?’
Remember: Sometimes the hardest conversations are the ones most worth having. Maybe if we can begin talking more about mental health more, and slowly eroding the nasty stigma that surrounds it, my father’s suicide won’t just be another statistic.
If this piece has raised issues for you, please call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
This piece was originally published in Edition 35 of Verse. View it in its original PDF form via ISSUU.