In news that is unsurprising but may bring comfort nonetheless: no one listens to a fucking thing I say. I am culturally useless. If required to describe my critical influence, I would say it hovers somewhere between all-girl naughties pop sensation Bardot and a piece of dog shit. If I had any more force than a single case of canine waste, or even just as much as the lyrics to the song, Poison, then someone at the ABC would surely have had a good, hard think about the intellectual virus at the heart of its mental health promotion and made it a bit less offensively sick.
I wrote last year on Daily Review about how counterproductive the ABC’s Mental As week was and, honestly, I was deceived for a moment by a volume of page views and correspondence into thinking I had “made a difference” or “started a conversation” about appropriate communications surrounding mental health.
Of course, this is delusional thought and I have nothing to blame but my own lavish self-involvement for daring to suppose that “making a difference” or “starting a conversation” is likely within the parameters of popular media. Popular media is generally only popular when it tells people what they already want to hear which, in the case of the ABC’s week of broadcast, which looks set to be even more guileless and shit than it was last year, is this: it’s really important to be nice.
I mean. Of course, it’s important to be nice when it comes to mental health. In one’s personal sphere, being unpleasant to someone experiencing mental illness is stupid. Of course, unpleasantness is, at times, also inevitable and I imagine I am not the only person to have told their mentally unwell friend to “go and see your fucking doctor, you prize loony” in recent months.
Every day for a fortnight, my friend, whom I have known for decades, described his persecution by the deli counter at Woollies, and at one point, the only “nice” thing to offer was an unpleasant reminder that triple-smoked ham wasn’t his chief problem, but hypomania was. He eventually conceded that smallgoods weren’t poisoning his mind and that, really, he probably did need to see a psychiatrist more frequently. He then made the point that frequent psychiatric appointments were unavailable to him.
This point is clear to many, many people experiencing mental illness. It was also one largely absent in the week of Mental As. And for a week the purports to be in service to “awareness”, a lack of awareness about the lack of mental health services, or, indeed, of social policy programs that might actually stop people from becoming mentally ill in the first place, doesn’t just seem negligent to me. It seems bloody-minded.
Like many Australians experiencing mental ill health, my friend cannot access regular care. It’s Just. Not. There. I shan’t shame him or diminish our intimacy by telling you just how spectacularly unwell he has been, but I implore you to believe both of us when we tell you: the resources that exist for him in no way address the severity of his condition.
And, you know, you don’t have to believe me and my own sentimental narration. What, in the name of Sophie Monk, am I trying to do here? If you want Moving Personal Stories, shower yourself in the saccharine sick that will be reliably upchucked by ABC1 all this week in prime time. “From break down to break through”, say their promotions. “Be inspired!” What the actual cock? You want us to be inspired by people with a disability? If you can explain to me how this pastel Oprahfication of hardship differs in any significant way from a freak show, I’m available for “inspiring” conversation by Skype.
So, ignore my Movie of the Week screenplay in which I would describe to you the tale of a formerly content and productive man worn down by life and turned to a nub of self-loathing by a health care system that is so under-resourced, it cannot monitor his meds or even keep track of his diagnosis. My tears aren’t the point here and his “inspiring” story of an already difficult life made worse by the fact of many institutional snafus isn’t your concern. It shouldn’t be your concern. And while, of course, it might be entertaining — although not, in this case “uplifting” as many of the programs on ABC radio and television promise this week to be – this doesn’t mean it is useful. Even, and especially, in the terms set out by this week of myopic “awareness” itself.
Underscoring Mental As week are the propositions that (a) large numbers of Australians are afflicted by what is diagnosed as mental illness and (b) Something Needs To Be Done. The ABC has decided in its week of Moving Personal Stories, to apply the perverse logic of the politician’s syllogism to these entirely valid propositions. i.e. 1 We must do something 2 This is something 3 Therefore, we must do this.
So, what the ABC did last year, and what it looks to be doing this year, is offer us Inspiring Tales of Individual Courage and/or Heartbreaking Stories of Hopeless Loss. And, I fucking know that everyone and their incontinent dog seems to agree with Alain de Botton’s wide-eyed view that personal stories about individuals help us understand wide policy contexts — AdB says that stories of Arabs “eating tabbouleh and stuffed vine leaves in a bucolic field overlooking the River Jordan” will help us understand Middle Eastern conflict — but I really, truly don’t. I am up to pussy’s red bow with Moving Narratives. And so is my loony mate who just needs to see a shrink once a week. And so are many shrinks themselves.
Mental health care representative bodies—and let’s be crazy and suppose that people who work every day of their lives to remediate mental illness have some expertise in the matter of remediating mental illness — are always talking about resources. They are much more interested in the raising of funds than of awareness. When a major report was delivered to government about the distribution of available resources earlier this year, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists drew public attention to the “absence of clear funding models”. The leaked summary of the report itself painted what one of its authors called a “disturbing picture” of services whose lack resulted, particularly in remote and rural Australia, in death.
While it is true that the ABC reports throughout the year on paucity or folly of funding to mental health services, it is also true that this critical fact is trivialised by the tears-and-triumph cycle of spin on its Mental As week. Even Radio National, an ABC scion that could once be relied upon to blast us with facts instead of feeling, is promoting a fucking “compassion call out”. Listeners are encouraged to enumerate those “little acts of kindness” that have delivered us from poor mental health. And, again, as the friend and the relative of mentally unwell people, I understand that it’s important to be nice. But I also understand, as does any fucker who recognises the principle of causation, that “nice” is an optional extra. Our core social purchase, surely, must be actual health care. Still, the RN morning program looks set to devote many of its broadcast hours to telling people to be nice.
I do understand that the problem of other people’s impatience with one’s mental illness can be significant. I do understand that those few who hear their own voices on the ABC this week or, at least, hear their own concerns echoed in other stories, may feel less diminished. I also understand that feeling understood is a simple, tiny part of a big, complex solution. Being well understood by one’s psychiatrist is a much more urgent matter than being understood by the producer of Life Matters. I understand that inspiring blog posts and moving talkback callers can provide a little boost. I also know that adequate mental health services, whose depleted state will be barely addressed again this year, are much more socially useful than Frank and Personal Discussion that comes with a hashtag.
This is not to say that all this inspiring warmth is, in itself, destructive. But, when it is elevated, as it has been and will be, to absolute primacy, it’s actually an impediment. If we begin to believe, as the ABC is absolutely encouraging us to do, that the only barrier to good mental health is our personal understanding, then we let policy makers off the hook.
Yes yes yes. It’s nice to understand. It’s lovely to be moved. It’s great to be that One Brave Person Who Changes Everything with the simple act of eating vine leaves stuffed with emotion next to a river of tears. But, when one confronts one’s disorder and finds that there is no practical help, Facebook likes just ain’t going to cut it. What you probably need most as a mentally unwell person– whose affliction is likely to be produced by or to itself produce poverty– are a range of social services. These do not currently exist in any adequate way. And this is a matter the ABC seems set, again, to largely overlook.
Compassion and understanding are nice, of course. They are not, however, of much use. And I am aware that the ABC is not in the business of providing services but it is — as an organisation who has had its funding impacted far less than mental health services — in the business of investigation. That the ABC has elected to focus on individual acts of kindness and not institutional acts of reform is curious, by which I mean fucked and stupid.
This year as last, Mental As week will end its week of emotional, inspiring, heartbreaking, moving awareness with a fundraiser. This is a little fiscal coda that makes the entire week of emotion valid, I guess. The recipients of this will not be people who urgently need more regular care but, instead, early career medical research. Quite a bit of this research appears to be focused around better media communications for mental health awareness.
Here, for the dog shit they are worth, are the fruits of my “research”: stop presenting individuals as the principal architects of illness and recovery. Stop this make-believe that institutional reform is much less important than lovely people. Stop supposing that we need stuffed emotional vine leaves to save a nation from its SSRI habit and start assuming that those of us who are stakeholders in this nation and its health are actually patient enough to talk a little policy.
And, FFS, stop trying to make me cry. I have mentally unwell people in my life and I fucking cry enough. And, frankly, the tendency to take such people and make them objects for inspiration or of pity makes me weep sufficient to fill a narrative river. I am so fucking tired of being treated like an idiot who can only really “understand” social problems in the terms of a sensitive Australian Story. I do not need to see another celebrity strolling through a meadow grass while speaking lyrically about anxiety attacks. I know what an anxiety attack looks like. Everybody does. I don’t want you to show me this shit. I want you to show me how I can lead the people that I love into the suites of a good and affordable doctor.
Their distress is not our entertainment. Their antidote is not our understanding. Your “compassion call out” is a toxic waste. We must do something. This is not something. Let’s not, for yet another year, do this.
Previously by Helen Razer: Lena Dunham has no place in politics