The stigma around mental illness still exists and it's hurting us

Kinderling News & Features

Shevonne Hunt hosts Kinderling Conversation every weekday at 12pm.

The trouble with mental illness is that it can feel like you’re the only one.

And being the only one, it makes you feel alone. It can make you feel weak, strange, and like everyone else is sailing through life as you limp along in pain.

According to Beyond Blue, an estimated 45 per cent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. That’s almost half of us, and yet many still find it hard to ask for help.

I think that’s because, despite all the information and awareness raising, there is still so much stigma around mental health.

This week is Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week, so it’s a good time to talk about mental health. One in seven women, and one in ten men in Australia will experience post-natal depression (PND) after the birth of their baby.

I used to think that stigma around mental health was something we’d all moved on from, until I realised I carried it myself. It has taken me decades to accept that I have an anxious personality. If I don’t manage my symptoms they will escalate into generalized anxiety and panic attacks. It’s an awful place to be.

In the initial sleep deprived weeks and months of my daughter’s birth I did not experience anxiety or depression. It came back to me later, when I was trying to juggle work, bills and very young children.

I cannot imagine how hard it would be to go through depression and anxiety at a time when your baby is new and fresh in your arms. When you are a new and fresh parent, bumbling around trying to work things out.

And I worry that there are parents out there who are struggling, thinking that it’s normal to feel depressed, or to lie awake as their baby sleeps soundly through the night.

Because you don’t have to feel that way. Parenting is challenging and hard. It can make you burst with joy one minute and be a puddle of tears the next. But it shouldn’t always be hard. It shouldn’t make you constantly sad or have a relentless racing heart. There is really good help and support available and you can pass through that dark tunnel and come out the other side.

To do that, we all need to be aware of the signs of PND - in all genders.

Terri Smith, CEO of Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA), says that depression and anxiety feel different.

Listen to Terri on Kinderling Conversation:

Depression covers lower mood feelings such as having trouble feeling joy in things that would typically light you up, feeling lethargic and withdrawing from friends and family.

Anxiety is more heightened moods such as panic attacks, a racing heart or worrying thoughts that go round and round in your head, or a sense of anger and frustration.

Terri says that while having a young baby can be challenging at times, and you may feel any of these symptoms for a short period of time (a day or two), when they persist for two weeks or more it’s time to get help.

If you recognise these symptoms in a friend, have a gentle word. Check they’re okay. Make sure they know the signs of depression and anxiety and that they don’t have to feel so awful.

If you know a man going through depression, PANDA spokesperson Israel says you might try a few other strategies;

  1. Be gentle and clear that you’re on their side
  2. Let them know they’re not alone – that men can get Post Natal Depression
  3. Listen without judgment
  4. Suggest they go through a check-list about where they’re at with their mental health

Listen to Israel on Kinderling Conversation:

Beyond Blue also have checklists for both mums and dads. If you recognise it in yourself, understand you’re not the only one. You’re not weak. You’re not strange. You deserve to feel happy, well and whole. Many of us have been limping along where you are now. And many of us have recovered.

Have the courage to ask for help, and the rest will follow.

For more information and support for perinatal depression and anxiety, check out PANDA.