Labelled mentally ill

Image from ABC
Image from ABC

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 I became withdrawn and felt ashamed of  myself.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 As programs on ABC all this week
Mental As programs on ABC all this week

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.

We can only hope that Mental Health Week, and the ABC’s ‘Mental As’ programs between 5 and 11 October 2014 will help to bring some of these stories into the light.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health problem, call

beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14

Image from Lifeline
Image from Lifeline


Image from beyondblue
Image from beyondblue

11 replies on “Labelled mentally ill”

  1. Shame on governments for their inadequate funding to properly support people with mental illness. This leaves a vacuum of understanding for the ill person and families so people suffer without adequate care or opportunities to live fulfilled and meaningful lives. The stigma of mental illness means people do not access the treatment they need or when they do it is too short lived and in environments that are over crowded, overburdened and unable to meet the persons needs before discharge. We must have state commitment to funding, least restrictive but long term treatment option and the new Mental Health Bill properly resourced.
    Many staff in the Department for Child Protection do not have any education about mental illness and act from prejudice or ignorance, compounding lack of support options for parents to nurture their children. Even basic diagnoses and the implication of what this means for this parent are not understood – so the assessment of capacity to parent are not based on full information, let alone how this persons illness will impact on child rearing practice and what intervention would be helpful. Leading therefore, to reactive practice and ignorance regarding what the child may actually require to remain emotionally secure which is often a further punishment for the family already challenged by mental illness.

    1. Thanks for validating my understanding of the paucity of funding for mental health care, Jenny, and also my recent experience of the staff in DFSCP. The whole system seems to be a tragic mess in relation to the care of newborn babies of parents who have been labelled with mental illness. This stems from inappropriate and perhaps inadequate care and planning for the wellbeing of the mother during her pregnancy.

  2. Well said MH. How many folk??? Far too many?? It is simply (or not) that if you cannot see it it aint there!! That’s what I reckon anyway!! AND of course there is no money in metal illness or curing it or assisting those who endure the burdens(LABEL) of mental illness. Rosiexx

    1. Thanks, Rosemary. Hurray for Mental Health Week, with its aims to make mental illness more visible, and to talk about the promotion of mental health. And to the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which has taken this project on in a significant way. Your point that there’s no money in mental illness is part of the stigmatisation, and that renders people with mental illness even more vulnerable, the Anawim.

  3. A good piece Maureen –
    You mention that ‘youth and the aged, homeless and Aboriginal people, rural men and fly-in, fly out workers’ are often in the list. I listened to a radio programme this week on Radio National – it was an interview with a young male farmer in Victoria, who indeed, had suffered deep depression. Thankfully, he got the help he needed and has assisted in setting up a regional programme to offer assistance. In his interview, he made an interesting comment that, despite the general viewpoint, more rural women attempt suicide than rural men. Interesting.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. Great to hear about people who have a lived experience of mental illness who recover and then help others. Good on him! I understand that the statistics are very shaky for attempted suicide. But it is known that many more women attempt suicide than men. Men seem to be more serious in their attempts, women perhaps are using attempted suicide as a call for help. That’s one theory, anyway. There are other groups of people I didn’t mention – old men who top the list per capita, people with terminal illnesses and I’m sure there are still other groups. Please add them to these comments if you know others.

  4. Yes I agree about the number of women who attempt suicide are possibly crying out for help – but then, I wonder, is it not the same for men? Do many men know any other way than ‘crying out’ for help?

    1. I think the point is that men seem to be more intent on actually killing themselves, at least according to the statistics. They appear to use more violent means to ensure death. It seems women are less effective in doing that, which may be an indication that they are ‘calling for help’ rather than trying to actually suicide. That’s the way I have seen it. Perhaps the reality is different.

      1. Whilst my comment may be ‘out of date’ – i.e, we are now on another topic which I have yet to peruse – from what I have heard, it is not so much that men are more intent than women, but rather that men tend to use more lethal means, such as tools, and are therefore more successful in their suicide attempts. Women, on the other hand, resort more to things like pills, etc. which do not always work. Maybe we can give thanks to that – for women, I mean.

        1. Yes, Elizabeth. I think you are absolutely right about men using more lethal means than women when they suicide (or attempt to suicide).

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