When it comes to mental health and addiction, First Step sits squarely in the middle. At this very challenging time when the evidence rolls in about increased levels of mental ill-health AND increased use of drugs and alcohol, it is hard to write on one topic like trends in mental health treatment, addiction, the federal budget, Job Keeper, State Government, COVID, trauma, gratitude, arghh!. But I’ll try, and my topic is humility.
If there is one switch I could flick in the mind of all Australians, voters and politicians alike, it would be the one that makes us realise that mental ill-health and addiction can happen to anyone. And I feel like COVID-19 and lockdown conditions might be helping to flick that switch a little bit. Who has not felt themselves unravel a bit at this time, especially if you live in Melbourne and have had months of lockdown? Who hasn’t felt that their equilibrium is a little less reliable than usual? Who hasn’t woken up in the morning and thought “Oh great, another one of these days.” Admittedly, there are lots of little silver linings out there, and some people have been enjoying the slowness of things, or maybe working from home and seeing more of their families. I know I have. But at the same time, it’s made me think “I don’t know how long I could keep this up for. And . . . what if something really bad happened? How would I hold up?”
Yes, it is true that mental illness and addiction can happen to anyone. But it is also true that they are concentrated much more heavily among a certain group: people who have suffered. The term used in the mental health sector for damage caused by bad things happening is ‘trauma’. If you find that term confusing, just use ‘adversity.’ When you suffer adversity, you are more likely to suffer poor mental health and/or addiction. When you suffer multiple adversities, that likelihood of mental ill-health increases exponentially. When you suffer multiple adversities, that are very serious (like mental, physical or sexual abuse) and that suffering begins in childhood . . . A recent, in-depth, long-term study by Mackillop Family Services found that 80% of children in out-of-home/foster care had a diagnosable mental illness. 80%!! Is that genetic, or is it that being shuffled around between 20-40 families and institutions damaging to people? I wonder.
And what seems more likely anyway? Is the mystery that is mental health mostly the result of an even more mysterious genetic code? Or is it that people’s mental and emotional wellbeing are primarily the result of the fortunes and misfortunes they experience in life. And while I’m at it, let me quickly observe that poverty is the ‘cause of the causes’ (Joffe, 1998), and that people who experience poverty are at least 6 times more likely to suffer from mental illness. That includes the relative poverty so visible in unequal societies . . . like ours.
During this time that is a strain on all of us, I urge you to observe that strain and remember the great truth of the 14th Dalai Lama:
“If you want to make others happy, practice compassion.
If you want to make yourself happy, practice compassion.”
Take this time to remember that whereas trauma divides, healing unites. Reach out to people who you know are isolated and struggling at this time, or who you think might be. Look into your current experience to see if you would benefit from being more kind and more generous to others at this time. If you’ve got the financial resources you might like to consider contributing to a worthy cause. If you’ve got some time on your hands you might like to consider your volunteering options. While organisations like First Step lobby governments of all levels for increased support for the most vulnerable people in our communities, remember that you also have the power to change lives. Ya just gotta do it!