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Our Mental Health Crisis

Recent Events in Sydney Highlight Our Need For Action


Caution: Some people may find parts of this content confronting or distressing. It contains references to the recent crimes in Sydney, and discusses challenging topics about mental health, including suicide. 

 

This has been a difficult newsletter to write, and no doubt will be a difficult topic for most of our members too. I really do urge everyone to take some time to read and digest what I'm sharing, as this is a topic that's particularly close to my heart. I feel we need to get more comfortable talking about the uncomfortable reality of our mental health crisis.

 

I’d written something different for this week, but feel compelled to share my thoughts and feelings following the violent attacks in Sydney, specifically looking at the questions they raise about the quality of support and treatment for mental health challenges in our country.

 

This is something I’m incredibly passionate about, and that I believe affects each and every one of us.

 

Firstly, know that my thoughts are with anyone in our community who has been affected by these terrible events. Whilst the incidents themselves have been devastating, it’s been incredible to see the people of Sydney rally together to support and care for one another during this particularly challenging time.

 

It breaks my heart to see the fallout of the two separate attacks (including the riot that injured 51 innocent police officers following the stabbing of the Sydney Bishop), and forces me to question what would drive people to this level of hate, anger and violence.

 

What state of mind would individuals need to be in to inflict this amount of pain on so many people? More systemically, what is happening in our community that encourages and enables this sort of behaviour? And most importantly, where have we failed as a nation to offer the support where it's required?

 

The effects of these crimes were further driven home when talking to one of our members who lives in Bondi this week. Days after the stabbings in Westfield Bondi, she was still incredibly shaken and disillusioned by the event. These are feelings shared by the majority of Australians as we grapple to come to terms with the gravity of these horrendous crimes.

 

40 year old Joel Cauchi, the perpetrator of the Westfield attacks, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 17. He had a history of mental health issues, but was described by his parents as a “joyful person”. He excelled at school and university, and managed his illness through medication for the majority of his adult life. 

 

However, in more recent years he chose to take himself off his medication as the drugs themselves made him feel unwell. As might be expected, things took a turn for the worse, and he ended up losing his home, sleeping rough on the streets for a period of time before moving back home with his parents in Brisbane. 

 

An article from the ABC this week highlights the fact that Joel had trouble making meaningful connections, regularly and repeatedly reaching out for friendship and company through his social media accounts. No doubt his illness may have hindered his capacity to connect with people, most likely rendering him incredibly lonely.

 

None of us will ever know what train of events would ultimately lead to the violent thoughts that would eventually cause him to act out with such rage and disregard for the lives of others. Undoubtedly his illness was the catalyst for behaviour that was, as his parents and colleagues have noted, out of character, but given that individuals with schizophrenia are 4 - 6 times more likely to commit acts of violence (*1), where was the support structure around him?

 

I can’t help but wonder, would he would have taken such a dark road had he been surrounded by a community that loved, cared for and supported him? A community that extended beyond his family, friends and colleagues to the nation as a whole, including the healthcare system that has so obviously failed him. 


My question is in no way intended to minimise the magnitude or severity of the crime that was committed. Nor to suggest his innocence. He has personally paid the ultimate price for his actions, with those paying an even bigger price being the victims left behind, including his grieving family.

 

My passion for wellbeing extends well beyond the promotion of healthy practices that optimise the lives of the majority of our community members who live what would most commonly be considered a “typical” healthy life. Practices that help us be more content, work more efficiently, earn more money and live longer, more satisfying lives.

 

I’m also dedicated to fighting for mental health issues and illnesses that aren’t sexy for the media or political representatives. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction, trauma and loneliness: none of these disorders, diseases and conditions are easy to talk about, nor are they given the amount of air time or consideration that they deserve. But the facts show that they’re killing more and more Australians every year.

 

It’s easy to point to the acts of the past week as stand alone crimes committed by “bad” people.

 

The media will swoop down on the raw emotions being expressed by the victims and the community as a whole, telecasting as much of the news as their viewers will consume. And the politicians will avail themselves of every opportunity to put themselves on camera, promising all sorts of platitudes (even offering residential visas to individuals who were heroes onsite) to make themselves seen to be doing something, no doubt hoping to endear themselves to potential voters.

 

And then the media and the politicians will move on. And the support for mental health in this country will be no better off.

 

According to findings released in 2023 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), almost half of Australians (42.9%) aged 16–85 years have experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime, with one in five Australians (21.5%) experiencing a mental disorder in the previous couple of years (*2). 

 

To make this more relevant to our readers, and bring this closer to home, these figures represent literally hundreds of our members at The Design Coach. These are not challenges experienced by a minority, and the effects are negatively influencing our productivity at work and our ability to live a full and rewarding life. Most people in my life either know someone directly or indirectly who has been severely affected by a chronic mental health condition.

 

Loneliness has recently been identified as one of the most harmful conditions influencing our health. The World Health Organisation has launched an investigation into the effects of loneliness, citing scary findings, including that mortality effects can be equivalent to smoking more than 15 cigarettes per day (*2a).

 

Social media is known to be a contributing factor to this growing sense of disconnection, with the main players out there making it their sole mission to encourage more screen time and less time spent face-to-face connecting with real people, further compounding the loneliness epidemic. The low level of accountability taken by the leaders of these billion dollar empires is both disgusting and disturbing. 


Even more distressing are the statistics around suicide. In 2022, over 3,200 Australians took their own lives, with some sobering facts including:

 

  • Males are 3 times more likely to take their own lives than females (*3).

  • Suicide accounts for almost one third of all deaths in Australians aged between 15 - 24 years (*3).

  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between the ages of 15 and 44 (*4)

  • First Nations residents are 3 times more likely to commit suicide than non-Indigenous Australians (*3).

  • LGBTIQ+ communities experience higher levels of mental ill health, suicidality and self-harm, compared with the general population. Approximately 43-48% of trans men have attempted to take their lives at some point (*5). 

 

In 2022, mental health’s share of the total government spending in healthcare was at 6.78%, the lowest it’s been since 1992. And yet, there’s new evidence indicating that mental health now represents some 15% of the total cost of treating disease in the healthcare system in our country. (*6)

 

Despite all of these stats and figures, and the obvious crisis we’re facing around mental health, things aren’t changing fast enough. It makes me equally sad and outraged that these findings aren't forcing an immediate call to action by the leaders in our country.

 

My biggest concerns about these issues are twofold: 


CONCERN # 1. How the community as a whole views the importance of mental health in our country.

 

Mental health conditions need to be acknowledged and supported by our healthcare system the way that physical health is prioritised. This fact alone cannot be argued.

 

However, the responsibility for this doesn’t lie solely with our healthcare professionals and government.  


Change starts with us.  

 

Talking about our mental health shouldn’t be taboo. We need to make it OK to openly discuss mental health challenges the way we feel comfortable discussing our physical challenges. We also need to make it a hot topic on every political party's agenda.

 

Today, everyone’s comfortable sharing their allergies, food intolerances or physical injuries. Oftentimes we wear our physical deficiencies and challenges as badges of honour, with it being "cool" to share how we’re overcoming them. Our biggest institutions are incorporating ways to ensure that the physical needs of their clients/customers are prioritised. Schools, restaurants and airlines all turn themselves inside out to cater to allergies and intolerances.

 

Exercise regimes that we subscribe to for optimal physical health are broadcast loudly and proudly. Health Insurance companies support all sorts of treatments and practices that help to optimize our physical health, including what would have not so long ago been considered Woo Woo hippy alternate therapies.

 

But can we say the same about regimes and activities that support our mental health?

 

Years ago I decided to make my mental health a priority, and I’m proud to share (as I’ve done previously) that I work with a psychologist to optimize this part of my wellbeing. Like a PT for my physical health, I see this as a way to get professional support to nurture my emotional and mental state, to help me be the best version of myself in all areas of life. 

 

I look forward to the day when it’s not just ok, but commonplace to share that we’re seeing a mental health specialist who is helping us with the growing day-to-day stresses of life.  


CONCERN # 2: How difficult we make access to support and treatment.


For anyone who has chosen the brave path to seeking support from a psychologist or psychiatrist, you’ll know that there are obstacles in place that make it difficult to get immediate care.

 

For me personally, it’s easy to get a rebate from my Private Health Insurance for the purchase of running shoes, but I’m not able to claim any of the costs from mental health therapies. To get a rebate from Medicare, you’re required to get a Mental Health Care Plan from your GP, with a limit of 10 sessions per year allowed under the current scheme.

 

While this hasn’t proven a barrier for me personally, for many in our community, the costs of seeing a psychologist can be prohibitive, and the process of getting a Mental Health Care Plan can be just enough of a hurdle to become a disincentive for the people who need this help the most.

 

The fact that our government and the private insurance sector see mental health practices as such a low priority is yet another indicator that we have things upside down in our country.

 

So what can we do?

 

I know this is heavy content to digest, but I don’t want this to all be doom and gloom! As mentioned previously, change starts with us individually.

 

These are some of the things that I'm doing personally to make mental health a priority for me, my friends and family and my community:

 

  • Getting educated. I'm doing my best to find out as much information as possible. What are we doing well, and what do we need to do better? I regularly read books, listen to podcasts, and commit to learning more about national and international trends in mental health. The Black Dog Institute has a lot of information and resources.

  • Talking about it. Sharing my challenges and what's working for me opens up the space for others to do the same. I want TDC to be a safe space for people to genuinely share their mental health challenges.

  • Making my mental health a priority. Just as I make my physical health a huge priority, I ensure that I check in regularly with my support team (including my partner, family, friends, accountability buddy and therapist) to keep my mental and emotional wellbeing on track. One third of my goal setting framework is dedicated to Wellbeing, and my mental health is a big part of that.

  • Checking in with others. I try to make it easy for the people I love to share how they're doing with their mental health. Until it becomes the norm to share openly, we need to keep checking in with each other and create space for the ones we love to be open and vulnerable. I love the concept of RUOK Day, but also think every day should be an RUOK Day.

  • Getting upset/angry. I'm pissed off, and sometimes that's necessary. Not with my community, but with the people who make decisions about how to support mental health in our country. It's not good enough and it needs to change.

  • Asking for help. In particularly difficult times, it's important to identify when you need professional help, beyond the care that your support team might be able to offer. That might be from a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or coach. It might also involve reaching out anonymously to one of the many help lines we have in Australia (see below).

  • Making my vote count. I'm committed to making mental health a priority in my decisions in upcoming local and federal elections. 


Horrific events such as those we've watched in Sydney this week will always negatively influence us, potentially leading to feelings of hopelessness and disconnection.

 

However, I'd like to think that despite (or even because of) the pain and suffering, we can see opportunities to learn and improve how the community progresses, and can feel empowered to make changes to our own lives and the lives of those around us. 

 

Personally, I'm committed to continuing to grow and learn about the condition of being human, and want to keep improving the services that we offer to our members.

 

If you or someone you know requires assistance or support, please call Lifeline (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636). For LGBTIQ+ community members, you can contact Q Life on 1800 184 527.

 

Stay well and please, always be kind. To yourself and others.

 

Sending love and peace.

Andrew

 

REFERENCES:

(*1) Statics from “Schizophrenia, Substance Abuse and Violent Crime” National Library of Medicine

(*2) Statistics from The Australian Bureau of Statistics ABS, October 2023

(*3) Statistics from “Suicide and Self Harm Monitoring” from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Australian Government)

(*4) Statistics from “Leading Cause of Death” from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Australian Government)

(*5) Statistics from “LGBTIQ+ Australians: suicidal thoughts and behaviours and self-harm” from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Australian Government)

(*6) Statistics from “Mental Health Crisis Looms Without Funding Reform” Insight, March 2024

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