You might already know from Twitter that about 35 years ago, my dad’s dad took his own life. I don’t know if dad is thinking about this more than usual, but we’ve talked about it twice in the past two days. 35 years ago, men were mostly not meant to be depressed. I mean, men are still mostly “not meant” to be depressed. That’s a big part of the reason men die by suicide at a rate of more than three times that of women. The stigma surrounding men’s mental health is massive, ill-informed and also deadly.
Anecdotally, it seems to be improving, at least in people I know. I talk to the men I know about how they’re feeling. I’m not sure if this is because I talk so much about how I am feeling, but they sometimes come to me and ask for my support and even advice.
(My advice is usually: “Talk to someone who is a brain expert, and I will come with you and we can get eat ice-cream until we feel better!” But you know, I’m not a psychologist.)
So I was talking to my dad. We were talking about children who exhibit suicidal tendencies, and whether these kids have a way to voice this inclination (for all kinds of reasons). My dad said, “I’ve had first-hand experience of what happens to people who can’t speak up.” He didn’t know his dad was sick until after the police called the first time. They told him there was a 95% chance it would happen again. It did. There were no pamphlets, no helplines, no numbers for support groups.
Between 2002 and 2012, suicide rates decreased by 17%. That ten year period also saw exponential growth in internet usage, and the advent of smart phones. I’m a uni student, so I know I can’t draw causal conclusions from these numbers, but what we have are people who are more able than ever to 1. seek information, 2. meet like-minded people with low barriers, and 3. speak freely and anonymously. More people than ever, in the history of the world, have access to tools with which to publish their experiences, fears, treatments, ideas and successes.
After I had Georgia, in 2003, I had severe PND that bordered on post-natal psychosis. Every day I thought about how easy it would be to die, about how tired I was, how angry, how anxious, how stressed. I hated my husband. I knew in my brain that I loved my child, but I didn’t feel it in my bones. I was so depressed that I sometimes stayed inside for a whole week, in my tiny flat, eating carrots from a bag and crying. Eventually I went to see my Maternal and Child Health Nurse, and she sat me in a chair and said, “You look like your heart hurts.” and I still cry when I repeat that to people, because it did, and because it still does when I think of the months that I missed.
But she had helped me to start a conversation. I found people on the internet who were having a similar experience to mine. I talked to them about things I had never imagined I would articulate — about harming my child, about feeling like a danger to myself. And I sought treatment from my doctor, and people took me seriously and I got better. When Lily was born in 2005, I didn’t experience PND at all.
Something I do a lot on my blog is talk about brains. Mine is faulty, other people’s are faulty, maybe yours is faulty. But there’s no judgement here. People leave comments and send me emails about the craziest shit that happens in their brain. I get wonderful emails from people who don’t feel ready to share their own mental illness stories, but feel like they can talk about them with me. I’m not bragging, I’m just saying that that’s the value in speaking up. When I wrote about how I thought Homer Simpson was my dad, I learned all kinds of things about people. We spoke freely. And we laughed! We laughed about being momentarily or not-momentarily insane, because we are people who want other people to know that depression and anxiety (and other mental illnesses) are real, but they are not the only thing. So we are mates and comrades and we’ve come along way since my grandpa killed himself 35 years ago.
I’m telling you all of this because community is vital to mental wellness. Reduction in stigma only happens when people feel confident that they can speak truthfully about what’s happening to them. Sometimes it takes a brave person to come out first, but once that person does, and another person does, and another person does, we begin to have a conversation. We start to educate people through real life, to help them understand that depression is not a weakness, that anxiety is not always rational, that being a person with a mental illness is not to the exclusion of all other things. And when we do that, the people who can find us and see us and know us are the people who haven’t felt that they can speak up, thank you internet. People at bus stops, people in dark rooms, people at work, people on holiday. People who are experiencing some kind of lapse in their brain function, whether permanent or temporary, who aren’t alone anymore, and who can see a way forward.
SANE Australia has something to say about stigma:
Stigma in the media is especially harmful because the media plays an important role in shaping and reinforcing community attitudes.
These are actual words Mark Latham used in the media today:
How will the children feel when they grow up and learn that they pushed their mother onto anti-depressants?
Women I speak to in western Sydney, who have no neuroses or ideological agenda to push, regard child-rearing as a joy.
(If you want to read them for yourself, copy and paste: http://www.afr.com/p/opinion/why_left_feminists_don_like_kids_zCbYWk9GxhdiLHnYdE3fsM)
The first thing my children will probably think, because I am raising them to be aware and empathetic and kind, is, “Gosh I’m glad those anti-depressants kept mum alive for a while!”
My children didn’t “push me onto anti-depressants”. I sought a course of treatment that was suitable to my requirement at that time, and I persevered with it until it was no longer required. My children are older now, but I have chronic depression, so I treat that in an appropriate way also. My depression pushed me onto anti-depressants. My children made me tired and ate all my money and caused me to be more isolated than I might otherwise have been, but they also gave me a reason to look for ways to feel well again. Which isn’t to say that this is the same experience everyone has, but it was my experience. I’m telling you this because if you have PND symptoms, I want you to know that they might be different from mine, and that you are still awesome.
I, personally, think Mark Latham says quite a few things that are misinformed, so his comments don’t offend me. I didn’t vote for him, and I think that was a pretty good judgement call. But I’m confident in my knowledge of my mental illnesses. I’m comfortable with the treatments I undertake. I’m not personally going to feel embarrassed or alienated because some idiot suggests that anti-depressants are a gap-filler for women who have neuroses and ideological agenda to push (presumably onto their other similarly afflicted child-hating frenemies). I don’t care. I will go on being depressed but okay.
But the reintroduction of stigma surrounding PND — during PND Awareness Week, you fucking clown — is a dangerous activity. Imagine: a woman with a month-old baby, who is sitting on her couch and feeling nothing. Maybe she realises she needs help. Maybe she’s even thinking about getting some. Then she reads something from someone in the national media that tells her she’s got it all wrong. That if she were an even half-decent person, she would find child-rearing a joy. That the author of that piece is a strong and real parent because he doesn’t need any help. That the only kind of parent you can be is an able, capable, joyous one.
Suicide is the leading cause of maternal death.
In contributing to stigma surrounding mental illness, you’re endangering these women, the ones who are on the cusp, who haven’t started a conversation yet. You’re endangering their families.
… and bond with the most important people in their lives, their children.
If you truly believe this, you crazy-eyed moron, you’ll understand a mother’s right to experience their child from beyond the dark fog of PND.
If you need someone to talk to:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyondblue 1300 224 636