• Eugene McGarrell

Zero suicides? Let's get real.

I started this week attending 2 separate talks at the City Recital Hall in Sydney by the author Mark Manson and the spin doctor to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell. Mark Manson is on a tour of Australia promoting his book “Everything is F*cked” and Alastair Campbell is sharing his experiences with serious depression and campaigning for reform of the mental health system.

Both men shared their vulnerability with mental illness and both men inspired me personally to make changes to my daily habits, to be present and to stay connected (analogue not digital).

The events generated a series of thoughts which I share with you to generate debate and discussion. We all deserve to live in a world where we can thrive, but how can we achieve this? I don't pretend to have the answers.

Alastair Campbell is well known in the UK and was characterised (some would say) by the character Malcolm Tucker in the series ‘The Thick of It” and the film “In the Loop”. A highly recommend the TV series and the film.

For me Mark Manson attempts to share an authentic vision of the world and our existence within it. He anchors his advice to support our own hero’s journey with the following statement:

“One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of Life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose – we are nothing.”

This Uncomfortable Truth is humbling. Our companies, governments and financial organisations are run by people, many of whom believe the opposite about their own existence. Narcissism, sociopathy and personality disorders are not uncommon among the people in power today. But some leaders have looked at mental health and they have genuinely wanted to make a difference.

When Morris Iemma became Premier of NSW he identified mental health, housing and disability as his 3 priorities. David Cameron and Theresa May identified mental health as a priority for their governments in the UK. And now Scott Morrison has pledged “zero suicides” as a target for his government in Australia.

Some of these pledges were authentic. I know from my personal dealings with Premier Iemma that he was personally committed. But statements, headlines, spins and targets are easy. Mental health is not one policy area, it’s not one health issue and it’s not one community. Mental health is complex.

It’s time to get serious about reform. To do this we need to understand that “everything is indeed f*cked!”. Anyone who has lived experience of mental health services in Australia or the UK will tell you exactly how f*cked it is. To access mental health services you either need good health insurance and access to a good psychiatrist (probably in the eastern suburbs of Sydney) or you need to be extremely ill to the point where your freedom is taken away through legislation and you are vulnerable to seclusion, restraint, ECT, anti-psychotic medication and stigmatised interventions, all against your will.

This won’t happen to us though, right? That’s just what happens to them. Wrong.

A Royal Commission is underway in Victoria. The media reporting of the Royal Commission is giving us all an insight into what goes on in the “mental health system”. Before we can move forward, we need connect with this Uncomfortable Truth. I worked in the mental health system for many years and I am also culpable for maintaining the status quo.

The first step is “Truth and Reconciliation”. But we can’t sit in guilt, grief and trauma for long. We need to move ahead and make the system work for us all. As Alastair Campbell said, we (Australia) could lead the world on mental health reform. And I think we have the capability to do just that.

There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we think about the mental health system. We need to move from the medical, clinical or health paradigm to one that encompasses the economy, the environment as well as the health and social factors. Systems thinking must be applied if we are to redesign the system.

As Mark Manson would advise, we need to sell hope to the hopeless. We can’t all be happy all of the time and we shouldn’t have that expectation as sold to us by hundreds of self-help books on the shelf (many of which I am guilty of reading). But we do need to start with ourselves. We all know the script… eat well, exercise, sleep well, connect with family and friends, contribute to community, connect with nature and take notice of the world around us.

We might need to re-learn to connect with our emotions, to feel the feelings instead of blocking them out with social media likes, alcohol, gambling, pornography or drugs (yes, I am also guilty of this). This is not moral advice, it’s just what the evidence says is good for us.

But our economy has to grow (or does it?). Our economy sells stuff that keeps us addicted. The story we are being sold reinforces our habits that do very little to support our mental health. Our economy is designed to make the few rich while the rest of us are too distracted to notice.

The ever-growing economy cannot grow for ever. The environment will eventually collapse and at some point, we will have polluted our rivers, oceans, air and land to the point where manufacturing of anything will be unsustainable. Kate Raworth’s new book “Doughnut Economics” provides a model of a distributive and regenerative economy. Governments need to embrace this new economic paradigm before it’s too late.

The environment and the economy are connected. A booming economy comes at the expense of environmental degradation. Our young people can see this. The emerging movement from our young people is coming from a vision of a future where they won’t be able to thrive. We are taking hope away from them. Anxiety and depression are rising among our young people and we are to blame.

Mental health service design within a context of economic, environmental and social reform is needed if we are going to get close to our Prime Minister’s target. Maintaining the status quo will see the trend in suicides continue to rise. Solutions involving new programs, increased funding and more beds within the current economic, environmental and social context will not reverse that trend.

It’s time for a mental health summit. A summit that includes leaders in health, social, economic and environmental reform. A summit that is led by people who have lived experience of the current system. A summit that is committed to a system wide change in order to support the mental health and well being of all Australians to thrive.

A summit that will create world wide reform.

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