I can’t imagine anything worse than to be diagnosed and labelled mentally ill. To be diagnosed with a mental illness in our society means almost certainly to be sentenced to a life of stigma.
A few years ago, I had a narrow escape. The circumstances of my life changed – dramatically. In spite of my best efforts, I seemed unable to regain control. As a result, I was diagnosed with hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia. I was prescribed medication. From the second dose, I knew the drugs did not suit me.
I became a constant visitor at my general practitioner. Her eyes glazed over as I tried to explain symptoms of muscle pain and weakness, lethargy, dizziness and sadness. She prescribed yet more medication. Growing more and more miserable, I changed doctors. I was irritable and weepy. I became withdrawn and felt ashamed of myself. My depression deepened almost daily.
Thankfully, one of my daughters asked what was wrong. She made an appointment with a cardiologist. In hospital, the medications were changed and reduced to minimal dosages in line with good practice. My recovery was miraculous. I regained my health and good spirits and averted being labelled mentally ill.
Power and vulnerability are implicit in all human relationships. The nature of mental ill health implies that the person is dependent on and controlled by psychiatrists and the mental health system.
Mental illness exacerbates the misery of already disadvantaged groups. These include youth and the aged, homeless and Aboriginal people, rural men and fly-in, fly out workers.
While the Western Australian government was setting shark nets at great expense to save a few surfers last year, people committed suicide in large numbers. More people committed suicide than were killed in car accidents.
Yet mental health care is overlooked time and again in government funding rounds.
For most people, accessing adequate care within the mental health system is problematic. Hospital stays following suicide attempts and psychotic events are short. People regularly return to emergency departments only to be turned away.
For other people, being labelled mentally ill and involvement within the overstretched health care system can become a nightmare. There can be many horrendous consequences.
One young woman I know was labelled mentally ill some years ago. One might have expected she would have been supported to mother her child with the support of her loving family. But the earlier diagnosis meant the effective loss of her newborn baby.
During her pregnancy social work staff in the public health system and officers from the Department of Family Services and Child Protection met with the mother and grandmother. They developed a so-called ‘safety plan’ for the mother and baby following discharge from hospital.
The plan went dramatically wrong. The father claimed custody of the child on the grounds of the young woman’s mental illness. Twelve days after his birth, the tiny breast-feeding infant was removed from his mother by an order of the Family Court.
The baby was given to the father who had not even lived with the young woman. He also had a history of mental illness and of drug use. He had no previous experience of child care and very little family support.
Now the mother is allowed access to her baby for a few hours four times a week.
The child protection workers have devised more and yet more ‘safety plans’. These include strict supervision of the mother at all times she is with her baby. I have watched the family members who are nominated supervisors. Over the last four months, they have become frazzled with the constant requirement to be available.
There will be many more such stories. But people labelled mentally ill do not have the resources to fight the system. They do not have a voice to tell the rest of society what can happen.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health problem, call