Mental health is everybody’s business

Mental health is everybody’s business

One of the staggering findings of Wesley Mission’s latest research into mental health in New South Wales, reports Trevor Dalziel, is that at some point in their lives, seven out of ten people will experience a mental health problem, or know someone who has.

All of us, says Wesley Mission CEO the Rev. Dr Keith Garner, need to be more aware of the pervasive mental health issues in our community and how we can seek early help either for ourselves or for others.

The findings of Wesley Mission’s report Keeping Minds Well: Mental Health Is Everybody’s Business were released in Sydney this month.

Apart from highlighting the prevalence of mental health problems, it also underlines the worrying fact that many sufferers delay seeking help, or don’t seek help at all. Sadly, one of the main reasons is the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.

The timing of the research report could not be better. With the naming of Professor Patrick McGorry — a leading international researcher, clinician and advocate for youth mental health — as 2010 Australian of the Year, the media spotlight is on mental illness.

“Wesley Mission welcomes this development. We deal every day with people suffering everything from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia, and know first hand the damage these conditions cause for sufferers, their families and the wider community,” Dr Garner said.

“We have long advocated the need for early intervention and treatment for mental illness, and the necessity of providing a range of treatment options for sufferers.”

As the Wesley Mission report shows, a great deal of fear and misinformation still surrounds mental health issues. People are typically more accepting of someone with a serious physical illness than someone with a mental health problem. One respondent even expressed the fear that her child might “catch” depression from a teacher!

Compared to those with a serious physical illness, people suffering from a mental illness are much more reluctant to seek treatment. This affects both the severity of their condition and their chance of recovery.

One of the other reasons people don’t seek early treatment is because our mental health services are not geared to them. Mental health expert Professor Ian Hickie, who is interviewed in the Wesley Mission report, is calling for a redirection of funds away from acute hospital services to more community-based care, such as that offered by Wesley Mission.

The focus of this care should be on the 15- to 25-year-old age group because this is the time when 75 per cent of mental illnesses begin. Ironically, it’s also the time of life when most people have least contact with the medical system.

Professor Hickie likes to point to the fact that when people present to the medical system with warning signs of a serious physical illness, the doors swing open to fast-track care. With mental illness, they often slam shut.

“We can and should transform the health care system to be as responsive to a young person with a mental health problem as we are to a young woman with a breast lump,” he says in the report.

There is also anecdotal evidence that health professionals are still uncomfortable dealing with people with mental health problems. Medication is often the only treatment option offered.

The Wesley Mission research offers many other insights:

Family and friends are the first port of call for help

People suffering mental illness identified family and friends as the first “port of call” in talking about their situation and seeking help. This raises the question of how to best equip these groups to better deal with the issues.

Parents, for example, need to be able to understand what is “normal” novelty-seeking and risk-taking behaviour among teenagers, as opposed to behaviour that indicates a growing mental health problem requiring attention.

Strong link to known risk factors and protective measures

There is a strong correlation between risk factors for mental illness and the likelihood of experiencing a mental illness. These factors are financial stress, work pressures, sleeping problems, traumatic events and strong and persistent feelings of loneliness. Similarly, a range of protective measures — such as exercise and a healthy diet — were shown to have a positive impact on prevention and management of mental illness.

There is strong community support for prevention programs

A strong backing for prevention measures in the community is evident, particularly respite for carers and school-based programs.

The report contains a number of recommendations for action, including wider adoption of Wesley Mission’s award-winning program called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) (www.mhfa.com.au/) which offers instruction to non-professionals on how to help someone developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. The first aid is given until appropriate professional treatment is received or until the crisis resolves.

“The program is ideal for churches as everyone involved in pastoral care will inevitably encounter people with mental health problems,” Dr Garner said. “MHFA is a practical ministry that ensures that the all-important first contact for a sufferer is a positive one.”

Wesley Mission is also urging education authorities, schools, parents groups, sports clubs and other related bodies to consider offering/attending this program to ensure that the all-important first contact for the sufferer is a positive one.

And it encourages other health professional bodies to follow the lead of the NSW Division of General Practitioners (GPs) which is doing good work in raising awareness among its members about mental health issues. This has been achieved though offering incentives to GPs to take studies in mental health as part of their ongoing professional development requirements.

Keeping Minds Well also indicated that there are issues of accessibility to mental health services by those on lower incomes, which usually includes the young.

In response, Wesley Mission is set to offer a bulk-billed psychological counselling service in Sydney which charges a minimal gap between the cost of the session and the rebate which can be claimed.

While some psychologists already offer such services, the practice is not widespread.

Wesley Mission hopes that the report findings provide a trigger for further debate as well as increasing community understanding of mental illness and the best ways to prevent, or reduce, the suffering it causes so many people.

Wesley Mission is committed to working in partnership with churches as they reach out to support their community.

Visit www.wesleymission.org.au/keepingmindswell to access a range of resources including sermon outlines, video clips and report presentation.

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