Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Mental Health Awareness - it's up to all of us

It's World Mental Health Week and it's great to see and hear so much happening to educate us about mental health.

This week I'm at the College of Mental Health Nurses Conference in Melbourne talking to people about the mental health clinical education toolkit that I've produced for St John of God Health Care. It's giving me the opportunity to meet nurses who are working in all kinds of places but all share one thing - a commitment to quality care for people who have mental health problems. I've met nurses working in hospitals; nurses working in Medicare Locals; community nurses working in cities and regional areas; nurses working in prisons, other forensic settings and assessing asylum seekers . There are also educators from hospitals, other health care providers and universities.

ABC has programmed lots of interesting things under the banner of "Mental As". What a fantastic contribution to the education of our community. I think some of what I've seen can really make a difference to creating supporting understanding and empathy in the community. Monday night's Q & A on television had a panel of people talking frankly about mental health in rural and regional areas. The panel included a psychiatrist, a comedian, a lived experience practitioner (something I've just learned about), a politician and a CEO from a community organisation and the quality of the questions and conversation showed just how much we're thinking about mental health and experiencing in our daily lives. (You can catch up on the show, read a transcript, see the questions posed and learn about the panellists on the website.) It was stimulating television: I was challenged. I was moved. I was educated. I was frustrated. I was angry. I was relieved.

Last night - again on the ABC - the first episode of Changing Minds aired. It takes us inside the psychiatric unit at Sydney's Liverpool Hospital. I regularly visit private mental health hospitals, but am not exposed to the clinical interactions. I see patients walking around and always greet and acknowledge them. I know that my experience is more than most lay people would have, but going inside a public ward where people are sometimes there under the Mental Health Act was a new experience.

The focus last night was on three people who have bipolar disorder and were in various stages of treatment for manic episodes. We saw Patrick towards the end of his stay and then back at home. We met Glen who is up and down. We met Sandra who is at the beginning of her admission showing nasty irritability and disordered thinking. I struggled with my own reactions to these people and admired the good humour and empathy displayed by the staff. Sandra was very suspicious about the medication a nurse was dispensing, initially denying they were correct. She insisted the nurse go through each tablet, explain what it was and then put it in a particular place. I was rolling my eyes from a distance and was so impressed to watch the nurse who patiently and respectfully responded to Sandra's needs.

What I've noticed is that all this conversation really does work against stigma. I believe this is the first step necessary for healing and understanding in our world.

Last night's program has also helped discovery within my own family. One of my family members has bipolar disorder and each of us has our own experience and attitudes as a result of living with this person. I've been open about this in my close circle, but have not talked in the wider world. The raising of mental health awareness has helped me understand that there's value in sharing my experience and insight with others. I have several close friends who also suffer with depression and anxiety. I know from talking to them that understanding isn't always there.

What's your experience of mental health? How are you engaging in the conversation? What can you learn to help understanding of people who have mental health problems?

If you're at the conference why not drop by the Australia Catholic University stand and say hello?

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