Large numbers of people are, through no fault of their own, now unemployed, underemployed or in insecure work. As necessary restrictions continue, isolation and ongoing uncertainty are also taking a toll. Even before the pandemic it was true that most of us will experience a mental health problem at some point over the course of our lives. It would hardly be surprising if for you, or someone you know, that time is now.
The Catholic bishops have released a statement, “To Live Life to the Full: Mental health in Australia today”, because a better understanding of mental health can help us all be aware of people around us who need our support at this difficult time. Our neighbourhoods, community organisations and clubs, and faith communities can be places of acceptance care and healing, rather than places of rejection, judgment or stigma.
As with others involved in providing social services and healthcare, the Catholic bishops still support the deinstitutionalisation of mental healthcare in Australia that took place in the 1980s. They point out however, that without adequately funded community mental health services, there is a gap in the system through which people continue to fall. Some new funding has been announced, but much more is needed. Social determinants including poverty, living conditions, and personal security are significant contributors to mental ill-health. This can be seen clearly in the experience of First Nations people and communities, asylum seekers and refugees, people who are homeless and those in prison.
The statement says, “our society tends to draw away from, or to push away, those who confront us with our frailties and limitations”. It encourages another way of responding, inviting us to accept that we all have frailties and limitations, and to embrace “those who are sick or who have disabilities, those who are marginalised or despised”. People living with mental ill-health are part of “us” and are not some “other” people. It is not a matter of “us” and “them”. We all want to share in the fullness of life. Surely this is what we mean when we say “we are all in this together”?
The stigma associated with mental ill-health can be as debilitating as the symptoms of the illness. Negative stereotypes lead to people being avoided, excluded or dismissed. The statement notes that “popular culture, films and advertising often ridicule people living with mental ill-health or cast them as being violent” when they are no more violent than the general population and in fact “are more likely to be the victims of violence and crime”. People with mental ill-health can be seen as incompetent and denied opportunities. Stigma undermines self-esteem, the treatment of ill-health, and the process of recovery. We need to reject the stigmatisation of mental ill-health, to challenge negative stereotypes and to eliminate discrimination.
The bishops also invite governments, communities, and each one of us to work for the transformation of social determinants of mental ill-health, and to call for policies and service provision that meets the needs of the poorest and most marginalised members of our community. They call for five main things.
- A significant increase in funding that is quarantined and budgeted with independent oversight and public accountability.
- Coordinated person-centred care from early intervention to acute care and aftercare across clinical, community mental health and housing, social services and charities.
- Improved and prioritised services for people with serious, complex, enduring conditions.
- Improved mental health services, and the provision of face-to-face services where they are lacking, for rural and remote communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, those of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and for people who are homeless or incarcerated.
- Improved professional support to carers who are unaided and isolated.
As expected, the bishops also speak to Christian faith communities in a particular way. They ask them to undertake some specific actions, and point to resources to help them in this. However, much of what the bishops say in their statement is also helpful for the whole community.
To read a copy of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement 2020-21 ‘To Live Life to the Full: Mental health in Australia today’ visit www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au/2020/07/03/social-justice-statement-2020-21/
Dr Sandie Cornish is a publications and research officer for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Office for Social Justice.