Flat White

Mental health: recognition, reaching out – and responsibility

9 September 2020

6:03 PM

9 September 2020

6:03 PM

That Australians’ attitudes to mental health have been transformed is true. That we need to further match increased actions to our increased awareness for better results is also true.  

And, what’s equally true is that a sinister streak threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our generally positive approach to mental and emotional wellbeing.  

Namely, it is distressing to see non-acute mental illness being occasionally used as an explanation or excuse for what are bad behaviours, malicious or irresponsible choices, and maladaptation of personality. It’s ugly when political and corporate bullies, for instance, use “mental health” to cover their nasty tracks, and it really sets back the cause of those genuinely in mental and emotional pain. 

But as we approach RUOK Day, which has become a regular and welcome ritual in workplaces, let’s first note what’s to be proud of. 

Awareness and socially acceptability of the challenges of mental health are at an all-time high. Meaningful conversations that never took place, including among men, even ten years ago are now another “new normal”. It’s become OK to not always be OK, and it’s great to see exchanges beyond just asking the well-branded question to listening and support skills when somebody says ‘Well, actually, I’m stuffed.’ 

With de-stigmatisation of mental health has also come unprecedented policy and resources at both Commonwealth and state levels. The work of the National Mental Health Commission is notable, including unprecedented advice it has been asked by the Prime Minister to prepare on suicide prevention, a tragedy with some 3000 deaths per year. 

Similar action has taken place in many workplaces with near-ubiquitous introduction of Employee Assistance Program programs and hotlines, mental health policies, and skilling up of both HR specialists and generalist managers. Many internal surveys show staff, especially Millennials, nominate “mental health” as a key concern and expectation of their employers. 

At the same time, and reams of stats show it, we have a ways to go. Some examples:  

  • Tolerance and acceptability of more “acute” illnesses – like schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder – lag behind the depressive and anxious conditions of what practitioners sometimes call the mainstream “walking wounded” (and that in no way delegitimises that cohort). It seems it’s less OK to not be OK when a condition is more confronting for colleagues and family. 
  • While resources are well up, experts rightly point out that the proportionate spend on mental health versus more “medical” health aspects remains disproportionate. The pandemic demonstrates vulnerabilities in our system. And, in terms of some workplaces, there is feedback about “tick-a-box” approaches rather than real empathy for anguished employees.  

These are perhaps points on a continuum of improvement. We can anticipate things will get better.  

More worrying is a disgusting practice that the more open conversation about “mental health” has created unintended space for; namely, a tendency of some in the public spotlight, including in political and corporate leadership positions, to exploit the greater acceptability of mental illness as a convenient method to remove the stain of their misdeeds. 

What is unacceptable personal behaviour – be it bullying, sexual harassment, or other forms of narcissistic excess – is sometimes being covered up or whitewashed with exaggerated or manufactured claims of mental illness. Perversely, perpetrators of appalling actions cast themselves as sufferers of mental illness in surgically executed and vain media appearances, and their claims become somehow unchallengeable. Grubs become charlatans become unquestioned “victims” or even lauded heroes for having “come forward”. 

Flaws of character and persona should never be papered over with newsprint claims of mental illness. Just as it is wrong on many levels to fake a conventional medical condition, it is very much wrong to knowingly and manipulatively fake mental illness or even suicidality. 

The reality check. Many senior leaders tell me they have had similar experiences in their superiors, peers or staff, and did not know how to respond. Well, given how far we’ve come, it’s time it was called out, not only because mental health fraud is gross and unethical, but because it impedes progress and is unfair. 

To the real victims of bad behaviour. To those with legitimate mental health problems who struggle to be heard. To the need to recognise that healing starts from self-awareness and self-responsibility. 

I say this as a person of lived experience both of diagnosed mental illness and, regretfully, of having done stupid and hurtful things to others. I have learned – in appropriately confronting ways – that the former and the latter are separate. Being inconsiderate and irresponsible is not the same as being mentally unwell or vice versa.  

But both are founded in responsibility: responsibility for managing one’s health in leadership positions and responsibility for one’s everyday choices and behaviours toward other people. There should be no mental health “get of gaol” card from behavioural consequences or from the hard moral work and accountability for one’s actions.  

To paraphrase a former colleague from politics and now disability services: ‘Let us not diminish the reality of mental illness, but also not diminish the imperative of personal responsibility.’ 

Without ownership of actions and claims, we risk undoing much work and a diminished compassion for those truly doing it very tough inside their own heads and hearts. By insisting on integrity in return for non-judgment, we may actually help some so desperate that they feel the distorted need to make false claims while keeping it safe for others to continue to get help. 

Indeed, a mature approach to mental and emotional wellbeing acknowledges both what we control and what we need help with. It’s about recognition and reaching out – and responsibility. 

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