Mental health stigma hurting young Australians

We need to have more conversations to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health according to Vikki Ryall
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Three in four young Australians won’t seek help for mental illness because of the stigma. Taylah Broadley reports.

When Christine Abdelmalek first sought help for her mental health issues, she had to do it in secret. “I couldn’t talk about it with my mother, my father, my siblings, my close friends, because that’s how much the stigma was present, and still is present in my culture,” the 25-year old university student says.

Coming from an Egyptian background meant that every consultation with her GP and every psychologist appointment were done in a shroud of secrecy. Even when she bought her first set of medication, she had to do it in a very secretive way. “There was a sense of embarrassment or shame associated with it, and it was very, very hard to talk about it within my family,” she says.

Abdelmalek’s predicament is by no means uncommon, with a recent study revealing that three in four young Australians won’t seek the help they need because of the stigma attached to mental health issues.

Christine Abdelmalek helps young Australians struggling with their mental health.

The study, conducted by the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne in collaboration with Orygen: The National Centre for Excellence in Youth Mental Health in partnership with Headspace, also found that 52 per cent of young people aged 12-25 who have identified having a mental health problem are too embarrassed to discuss the mental health problem with anyone.

This is due to various factors according to Vikki Ryall, head of clinical practice at Headspace. “Firstly, young people are transitioning into adulthood, which is not the easiest task to do, and often they feel quite alone in whatever they are experiencing, and it can look like other people are doing okay,” she says.

We need to have more conversations to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health according to Vikki Ryall

Ms Ryall, who has been a clinician in youth mental health for over 20 years, also spoke about the misunderstood perceptions around what mental health issues actually are and how common they are. Part of the confusion, she says, stems from the fact that mental illness does not manifest like a physical illness.

“If you had chronic asthma, you would ring up work and tell them that you need to go to the doctor … but people don’t seem to have the same approach to depression, which is also an episodic, treatable illness,” she says.

Christine Abdelmalek, who is  studying a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences at Deakin University, agrees. “Because it’s not a tangible thing, it’s very hard for people who don’t struggle with mental health issues to really believe in the idea that someone can struggle mentally and emotionally,” she says. “When it comes to our mental health, it manifests in a way that can’t be seen and in a way that only that person can feel. It manifests itself in emotion, in the chemical structures of our brain, in cognitions in our thought process, and they’re all very abstract things.”

She also highlighted society’s tendency to overuse the terms depression, anxiety and OCD as a contributing factor to the stigma surrounding mental health. “They are all used so often in everyday language that the true meaning of these words have been taken away’, you often hear people saying, ‘I’m so OCD about this or I’ve got anxiety about this, which takes away from the illness that seriously affects how people function in their everyday life,” Abdelmalek says.

Mental health disorders affect one in four young Australians, and because of the stigma surrounding mental health, a lot of these young Australians aren’t willing to seek the help they need, according to Ms Ryall. “Young Australians with mental illnesses are waiting longer than they should [to get help], which means that we aren’t able to treat it as well,” she says.

This delay in help is leading to “secondary effects to their mental health”, says the youth worker. Not only does a young person’s mental health continue to be a problem, but they can begin reducing their social activities, meaning that over time they will feel more alone, and more isolated. “The mental illness starts to have other effects that broaden out into a person’s life,” she says.

Kate*, a Melbourne-based university student, knows all to well about the effects of mental illness, often finding herself unable to complete ordinary tasks because of her severe anxiety. “I’ve had to find different ways to do regular things, like get to the train station, in order to help myself cope, because it’s a lot easier to find other ways of doing things than go admit to someone that there’s something wrong,” she says.

The 20-year old, who has had one failed attempt at seeking help, doesn’t talk about her mental illness because she doesn’t want it to define who she is. “I’m scared of what people will think, what they will think of me and how they’ll treat me once they know. I don’t want people walking on eggshells, I just want them to treat me like me, not someone with anxiety,” she says.

This is a fear a lot of young people who experience mental health issues seem to have, with the study finding that 49 per cent of young people are afraid of what others would think if they discussed their mental health issues. However, there is an easy fix to this, according to Ms Ryall – talking about it.

“We need to continue to have conversations about mental health, and for people to talk about their mental health; and we need organisations like headspace to continue to be funded so that we can do awareness campaigns and educate the public about mental health,” she says.

Also lacking is the proper training for health workers, says Ms Ryall. “People need to engage in things like mental health first aid so that they know how to respond,” she says.

Similarly, Christine Abdelmalek believes we need to ensure that GPs  – who are normally the first point of contact for young people dealing with mental health issues – to have the proper training so that they are equipped with the right skills to support mental health disorders.

Most importantly, we need to show young people how common mental illness is, says Abdelmalek. “Mental health doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or you’re poor or if you come from a particular culture or socio-economic status. It does not discriminate against those things and it can hit anyone really,” she says.

Abdelmalek, who struggled with depression and anxiety, is doing everything she can to promote awareness surrounding mental health; using her own experiences to help other young Australians who are going through their own mental health battles. The psychology student is currently a youth ambassador for ReachOut, has a position on the youth research council at Orygen and works in a peer mentoring role for high school students through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters charity.

It’s organisations such as ReachOut, headspace and Orygen, says Abdelmalek, that are boundless in their ability to help young Australians struggling with mental health issues. By tailoring their content to the needs of young people, they are creating a space for young people to feel comfortable talking about their mental health.

“We need these organisations because the Internet now has become such a niche for young people, and usually that’s their first point of contact when they’re struggling, so they’ll jump online and try to seek some sort of resource. Having a whole variety of services for young people is really really important,” she says.

Each year, more than 25 per cent of young Australians are struggling with their mental health, but most don’t feel comfortable seeking the help they need. Abdelmalek says the only way this can change is if mental health is normalised to remove the stigma. And we can do this is by equipping “the right people with the right knowledge about how to deal with these things”.

“We need to work on breaking down the barriers of help seeking and try to de-stigmatise [mental health],” she says. “We need people to start speaking out about mental health and have these conversations around mental health.”

If you or anyone you know needs help, you can call Headspace on 1800 650 890. For more information visit https://www.headspace.org.au

*Kate’s name was changed for privacy