Mental Health – Challenging the Stigma

With mental health week fast approaching, I think that it is important for me to reflect on a topic that is not often spoken about but should be. The air that surrounds the topic of mental illness is stifling, and I personally think that it is about time that this was changed.

Mental health is something that all humans deal with. Whether it is the stress of school and exams, some anxiety over meeting new people, a lack of self-esteem, feelings of depression or a diagnosis of schizophrenia, at some point in our lives we all come into contact with situations that may challenge our mental wellbeing. It is time that we stop avoiding the conversation and become comfortable talking about our feelings and what might be stopping us from living fulfilling and meaningful lives. It is time to stop living in fear of people with a mental health condition and to start recognising these people as just what they are, people. Everyone is unique, that is why we are called individuals. No two people are the same and a person’s mental health status contributes to the person’s uniqueness just like all of their other traits, but it does not DEFINE them!

I became passionate about mental health awareness whilst working on a psychiatric ward on one of my university placements. I, like most people before me, was anticipating a scenario similar to that of the Jack Nicholson movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. What actually happened is that I met some amazing people and learned more than what I ever thought was possible. These people were welcoming and accepting of myself, but more importantly their peers. They had created a supportive and loving community within the ward that embraced even the most unwell of patients. I learned in that 10 weeks that the stereotype that is portrayed in the media of violence is so far from the truth that it is laughable. That is not to say that I didn’t see violence, but often it was a cry for help from people who were not better able to express their emotions.

As an OT I was there to listen to these people’s stories and help them to find their own ways of coping with the stressful situations that might trigger a decline in their mental wellbeing. This was done by conducting group sessions in a safe space where everyone could express their honest feelings without there being repercussions. It created a trust and broke down barriers between clinician and patient, and allowed us to see each other as people who had something important to say.
Sensory modulation was also a huge part of my involvement in people’s recovery. I encouraged people to find activities or sounds or smells that would help them to cope with a difficult situation, including music, art, journal writing and self-reflection, and gardening.

I will never forget the people I met and the lessons that I learned whilst working on that ward. On my last day of placement I told myself that I would never believe another media story, and would never judge someone for their behaviour before talking to them and hearing what they have to say.

As an OT it is my role to understand all aspects of the person and their environment to determine the factors that might be influencing their mental health and functioning. I am here to find out the activities that are meaningful to that person and to empower them to engage in those activities. I will remind them of their achievements and will instil a sense of self-esteem and wellbeing. I will advocate for those who are suffering from a mental illness and will encourage people to follow my lead.

It is ok not to be ok but it is important that we are open to discussing our feelings and the consequences of asking for help or not taking action. All it takes is a conversation to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and I would like to encourage you all to make the time to talk to some one regardless of how difficult or confronting it might be. All it takes is a conversation to change someone’s perspective, or to change a life.

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If you would like to share your thoughts on mental health and wellbeing, please feel free to do so below. If you need to talk to someone, please reach out to me or someone else that you feel comfortable with talking to.

If you would like to know more about mental illness or disability, I encourage you to visit themighty.com, where real people tell their stories about the everyday ups and downs of living with a mental illness or disability.

Mental health week runs from the 9th to the 15th of October. For more information visit http://www.mentalhealthvic.org.au