My Chronicle column this month is on mental health.
Help closer than ever in muzzling that black dog, The Chronicle, 7 July 2015
At age 22, my friend Andrew McIntosh took his own life. Andrew was a high school mate, a gifted athlete who could quickly pick up any new sport, a bloke who was there to share a laugh. He drove a yellow Valiant Charger, loved AC/DC and was always up for a night out. Andrew was studying at the time of his death. We all thought that he was on his way to becoming a great sport teacher. But none of us caught sight of the fact that the black dog had found its way inside him.
I often think about Andrew when we’re discussing mental health. In 1994, the year he died, hardly anyone had access to the internet. Today, many of us carry it in our pocket. Of course, there’s a risk that constant connectivity can be isolating. But a number of innovative online services are now reaching out to help people improve their mental wellbeing.
One novel platform, run by Sane Australia, provides peer support from those who have travelled on the same journey as the person reaching out for help. People experiencing mental illness can connect on the ‘lived experience’ forums, while another platform helps connect carers.
To see the value of the services, you only have to look at some of the conversations. In one exchange, a woman sought advice on looking after her husband, who had been suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after decades in the military and emergency services. In response, a fellow PTSD carer posted her suggestions, which included such novel ideas as releasing stress by going for a walk, dancing it out, or throwing oranges at the ground to release anger. The woman seeking help wrote back ‘For the first time in 7 years I feel like someone actually understands!’.
Peer support will never replace professional support, but we need a variety of mental health solutions to reduce the odds that people fall through the cracks. Over 600,000 Australians suffer severe mental health problems, and yet one-third of these don’t seek help. That’s why we need good programs in schools and workplaces, online and in person.
I’ve often wondered what more we could have done to reach out to Andrew McIntosh before he took his own life. Two decades on, I imagine that his parents, Grahame and Rena, still think about it every day. If you know someone doing it tough, take a moment to ask them if they’re ok, and encourage them to seek help if they need it.
Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser. Sane Australia’s website is www.sane.org. If you need urgent help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.