Why should YOU care about mental health?


 Speaking at The Inaugural NSW CAG Art Exhibition in 2011. Kevin Humphries, MP, Minister for Mental
Health, Healthy Lifestyles and Western NSW (pictured on the right) opened the exhibition.

Despite attempts by organisations and individuals to destigmatise mental illness, and despite billions of dollars being spent by government in an attempt to address mental health problems, stigma and stereotypes are alive and well. Even though the tide is turning, progress is being made and attitudes are changing, people with mental illnesses are often outsiders in the community.

Mental health, including the debilitating bipolar disorder, is becoming a major concern in the Australian health community. Mental illnesses are growing at an alarming rate. According to The Black Dog Institute one in five Australians will experience a mental illness within a twelve-month period. Almost half of all Australians will experience a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime.

Mental disorders are the third leading cause of the non-fatal burden of disease and injury in Australia. The World Health Organisation estimates that depression will be the number one cause of disability in both the developed and developing worlds by 2030.


When you are at the end of your rope

When you are at the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.

Thomas Jefferson


The treatment of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a disabling and life-threatening illness.

The treatment goals for bipolar disorder should be to:

  • stabilise mood
  • eliminate symptoms
  • prevent relapse
  • reduce co-morbidity
  • prevent mortality
  • provide well-tolerated treatments

It’s easier said than done.


Cognitive (dys)function and bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder affects people’s cognition (thinking ability). It affects attention (e.g. reading, remembering phone numbers and pin numbers) and it affects memory (e.g. facial recognition, story recall, long term memory). Visual memory is usually OK.

As far as I know, for people with bipolar, the following are usually OK:

  • IQ
  • Vocabulary
  • Visual memory

The following are usually affected:

  • Verbal memory
  • Executive functioning
  • Attention
  • Auditory memory

Two thirds of people with bipolar disorder will manifest cognitive dysfunction. One third don’t.


The great pretender

 Oh yes, I’m the great pretender
Pretending I’m doing well
My need is such
I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell

Oh yes, I’m the great pretender
Adrift in a world of my own
I play the game but to my real shame
You’ve left me to dream all alone

Too real is this feeling of make-believe
Too real when I feel what my heart can’t conceal

Oh yes, I’m the great pretender
Just laughing and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I’m not you see
I’m wearing my heart like a crown

Too real when i feel what my heart can’t conceal

Oh yes, I’m the great pretender
Just laughing and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I’m not you see
I’m wearing my heart like a crown
Pretending that you’re…
Pretending that you’re still around


Words have power

I wrote my book because words have power.

I discovered the power of words when I was about nine. I had one of those mothers you could never argue with. Well, you could, but she wouldn’t listen. I often seethed with the silent rage of impotence because I was never allowed to contradict her or raise my voice. After yet another one-sided argument, I decided to write my side of the story on a piece of paper and put it on her bed. I argued my case, detailing all the reasons why I was right and she was wrong. The words spilled out onto the page. My mother never mentioned that she had received my letter or read it, but I knew that she would have and that was more than enough for me.

All anyone wants is to be heard.

My son, who has Down syndrome will never be capable of writing me a letter. But that doesn’t mean cannot harness the power of the written word. He knows what a diary is for and he often checks my diary to see if his name is in there. One day he brought me my diary and pointed to a day with his name on it. I told him he was scheduled to go to a communication workshop and he indicated most strongly that didn’t want to go. I fobbed him off, saying we’d talk about it later, etc, fully intending to take him. I am sure that he must often seethe with the silent rage of impotence. A few minutes later he brought me back the diary opened to the page we had been looking at. The entry was gone. He had taken the white out and simply deleted it from my diary. If it wasn’t in the diary, then it wasn’t going to happen.

All he wanted was to be heard.


The careers advisor

I had an extremely boring (read privileged) childhood, where I had to amuse myself by playing with my friends outside in the fresh air, eating hot chips on the swings at the local park, singing in a choir and going to church every Sunday with my family. The only adversity I suffered was having to hang out and bring in the washing, cover the school books for my four younger siblings with sticky plastic contact and organise birthday party activities for my brothers and sister every year.

      I hated being a teenager, because I felt a bit weird, so I hung out with the other girls who were a bit weird too, shy and kind, rather than popular. In high school we were advised which subjects to take, based on our academic and other abilities. It was suggested I take History and English and not Maths or Science. Art wasn’t even an option, as that was an invitation only class. My parents wouldn’t have allowed me to do art anyway, it wasn’t academic enough.
      When I finished school, I had to decide what to do with my life. I was at an all girl’s Catholic school and my interpretation of what the school Careers Advisor told us was something like this:
1. If you are not very intelligent, you can go to TAFE and do hairdressing (please I am casting no aspersions about hairdressers, that is just what the Careers Advisor implied)
2. If you are a little bit more intelligent, but can’t manage university, you can go into the public service and be a secretary or do admin work
3. If you are of average intelligence and study hard you can do either teaching or nursing
4. There was no option #4.
      Well, actually there was an option #4 and that was get pregnant and get married, or get married and get pregnant. I went for option 3. Teaching. The reason? At that time, the NSW government was offering teaching scholarships. Not only did I not have to pay for uni, the government paid me. Unbelievable.  When I finished teaching, I went on the waiting list for a job. I stayed on the list and I am still waiting for them to contact me.


Disclosure of mental illness in the workplace

One of the hardest things about having a mental illness is disclosure in the workplace. I understand that it can (theoretically) be positive and helpful to tell others about it, but I also know that it can also be disastrous, leaving you unsupported and exposed to stigma and discrimination. There is no statutory obligation for a person to disclose that they have bipolar disorder to a current employer or to a prospective one. You only need to disclose a mental illness if it will interfere with your performance at work or if there is a safety risk to yourself or to anyone you work with.

However, it’s complicated. A number of people who have bipolar disorder are unable to work at all due to their condition. Some can work part time and others periodically. Many people have difficulties at work prior to diagnosis and treatment, but they can work without any problems afterwards. Countless people with bipolar disorder thrive in the workplace, and are extremely professional, productive, creative, hard-working and valued employees. People with mental illness and work coexist in shades of grey.

One day I was at work, chatting happily to one of my colleagues. I had not disclosed to her (or anyone) that I have bipolar disorder. The work day had finished and we were talking about everything from our careers to our personal lives. She confided in me about her sick mother and her alcoholic father and I told her about my disabled son. She showed me an article about something in the newspaper, when I saw another on the same page about a high profile magistrate with a mental illness who had been sacked from his job on account of it, and had to plead his case before Paliament to be reinstated. I said to my colleague, ‘Look at that article. I wonder what the outcome will be?’

She replied firmly and forcefully, ‘I don’t think those types of people should be in positions like that. You know what they’re like. They never take their medication and you could never be sure that they wouldn’t … ’ She continued … going on and on … clearly unaware that I was one of those ‘types of people’. I am sure she wouldn’t have said what she did if she had known. I didn’t hear much of what she said after the first few words. I felt like I had been punched. A king hit had come out of no-where. My face flushed, I felt hot and shaky and thought I was going to be sick.

Maybe what she said wasn’t such a big deal, and maybe I over-reacted, but I do think her views are indicative of what most people think. It was not the first time comments like this had been made at work and I am sure it won’t be the last.


Ruby Wax on mental illness


Art from Adversity: A Life with Bipolar


I have just found my book on the publisher’s website. This is it!



Art from Adversity: A Life with Bipolar
Anne Naylor

Available: 1 March 2013


Previous Page Next Page