This article has a content warning for discussions surrounding mental health and suicide.
I saw a Facebook post last Friday from Greens Senator, Scott Ludlam. You might’ve seen it too. In the post, Senator Ludlam wrote of his upcoming leave of absence to assist his treatment of depression and anxiety.
His distinctive, non-capitalised syntax usually appeals to the ‘hip youth’; conveying a sense of informal, classy sophistication. However, the lowercase, short, and weighted sentences in this post subtly illustrates the incontrovertible vulnerability that surrounds any mention of mental health, particularly associating it with your job.
The post went viral instantly, with over 20,000 people reacting, sharing or commenting their well-wishes in just a few short days. It was quickly transposed into news stories, from mainstream to online media outlets. Yet, it didn’t spark a much-needed dialogue.
The sad reality is, that many people don’t have the platform that Senator Ludlam has, nor the capability within their profession to simply take a ‘leave of absence’.
I am extremely proud of the mateship and camaraderie culture that has been a foundation of Australian society for many decades. When we see a mate with an arm in a sling trying to carry a heavy bag, or a fellow train passenger walking with crutches, many of us wouldn’t think twice about lending a hand, or offering them our seat.
Injuries like these are visible. Mental illnesses often are not.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3,042 people died from influenza or pneumonia in 2015, compared to 3,027 people as a result of self-harm in the same year. On average, six people commit suicide each and every day, and a further 30 more attempt it. We know that 45% of Australians will experience ill mental health at some stage in their life, and 1 in 5 of us suffer from ill mental health ever year. When all of the data show that mental health is a chronic social concern, why is there still so much stigma attached to it?
What do you think is easier: asking your boss for a couple of days off to recover from a mild cold, or asking for some mental health or stress leave? For those with anxiety, this question can be even more difficult to phrase.
Fair Work Australia, the ombudsman overseeing enterprise agreements and workplace entitlements defines the minimum paid sick leave for full-time, permanent employees at 10 days per annum; however, individual employers have final discretion on how sick leave days are awarded and what documentation (if any) is needed to take the leave. Should people have to visit their GP or psychologist every time on the occasion they need a day or two to recuperate and recharge?
While days like R U Ok? often have widespread corporate and community appeal, the reality is they’re relatively tokenistic, operate for a single day each year and don’t address the fundamental, systemic problems (particularly within workplaces) that exacerbate mental illnesses.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has a detailed explainer on how employers should manage mental health within their organisation – both reactive support for employees and proactive approaches to improve their workplace’s culture and environment. These should be adopted industry-wide, but the reality is they aren’t, and this will probably continue to be an avoided topic among corporate circles for years, if not decades into the future.
Taking steps to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health needs to come from all angles of our lives. The workplace is the last place where this is readily prevalent, yet it should be a priority focus.
Until we, as a society, approach a stage where mental health is discussed and is acknowledged at the same levels as physical health, a taboo will always cloud the path of improving the lives of thousands of people every year.
We talk about finding ‘cures’ for cancer, and other ‘visible’ medical conditions. Why don’t we spend the same effort addressing similar advancements in mental health?
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If you need to reach out to someone, contact LifeLine on 13 11 14, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. ♥