Communications Office and ACBC
The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2020-21, To Live Life to the Full: Mental health in Australia today
, has been released ahead of the Church’s Social Justice Sunday, celebrated on August 30 this year. Given the challenges our country and world are facing due to COVID-19, the issue of mental health is very much front and centre for many people.
The Statement challenges everyone – individuals, schools, parishes, communities, policy-makers, governments – to take an interest in the issue of mental ill-health.
‘Our society tends to push away or draw away from those who confront us with our frailties and limitations. This is not the way of Jesus,’ writes Bishop Terry Brady, the Bishop Delegate for Social Justice.
‘This is a timely message in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is affecting many members of our parishes, schools and communities,’ Bishop Brady said.
‘The personal feelings of anxiety and despair we all share at this time provide an opportunity to become more aware and active in fostering the mental health of all. Understanding mental health will help us to be aware of those who most need our support.’
The Statement encourages parishes and local communities to be places of welcome and inclusion, overcoming the barriers and stigma often faced by people experiencing mental ill-health. It demands the commitment of governments and policy-makers to prevent so many people falling through the cracks of the mental health system.
It also calls for the nation’s commitment to addressing those policies that exacerbate the already precarious circumstances of First Australians and refugees and asylum-seekers.
‘Our society tends to push away or draw away from those who confront us with our frailties and limitations. This is not the way of Jesus,’ Bishop Brady said.
‘Let us follow him in drawing near to those who are experiencing mental ill-health and acknowledge that they are members of the Body of Christ – “they” are part of “us”. Only then can we say “we are all in this together”. Only then can we “live life to the full”.’
Read the first extract of ‘Live life to the full’ below.
The mental health of our people and communities
Most of us will experience a mental health problem at some point over the course of our lives. These problems may be temporary, but they can develop into mental illness. It is estimated that just under a quarter of the population are at risk of experiencing a mental illness.
Mental health can be seen as a continuum. At one end are people who are feeling well and coping with the demands of daily life. This is the case for 60 per cent of all Australians.
At the other end are people experiencing mental illness. Common conditions include anxiety and depression. Others relate to psychosis, including schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder. These can range from mild conditions that are self-managed, to those that need basic care, through to moderate and severe conditions that require specialist support or hospitalisation.
With proper treatment and care, most people recover completely. And while those who are living with mental ill-health, or who are on the path to recovery, are often active and productive members of the community, significant challenges remain.
People experiencing mental ill-health often encounter stigma and may fall through gaps in medical and community care. In fact, mental ill health through the lifespan is quickly becoming the greatest cause of disability in the world. Having an understanding of mental health can raise our awareness of people in our families, faith communities, workplaces and society who need our support.
In the lead up to the 2018 Synod in Rome on young people, we surveyed over 15,000 young people in Australia. The National Report, Called to the Fullness of Life and Love, identified mental health, followed by school or study, drugs and alcohol, and body image as the main issues facing young people today.
Mental illness typically emerges in adolescence and early adulthood. Three-quarters of people who develop ill-health first experience its symptoms before they are 25 years old. This period of transition comes with significant changes in the functioning of the brain in addition to many other pressures.
There is the pressure to succeed at school, to start university or find work. Lack of affordable housing, significant debt early in life, and the ‘gig economy’ can cause huge pressures. This is a time in life when young people at risk can withdraw from family and friends, engage in risk-taking behaviours and form a reliance on drugs and alcohol.
We are deeply saddened that over 3,000 people are lost to suicide each year and that young people aged 15 to 24 years of age are most vulnerable. This is a growing problem. It accounts for around one third of deaths among people in this age group, with around 90 per cent of victims experiencing mental ill-health.
Older Australians, on the other hand, have the best mental health across the lifespan. With increased longevity and good overall health, older Australians are taking up new opportunities for leisure, family life, social engagement and continued employment.
For those in declining health with few social supports, however, the experience of social isolation can cause depression and exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems. Major changes increase distress – grief for deceased spouses and friends, limited finances, losing independence and moving into residential aged care.
People aged over 75 receive some of the lowest levels of mental health care. Because depression is regarded as common among frail-aged people in aged care, it may be seen as ‘normal’ and individuals and their carers are less likely to identify and treat the illness.
Viewing mental health across the life span, we are mindful of those stresses that have an impact on family life.
The birth of a child is a great joy, but for many parents it can also be a difficult time. Up to 20 per cent of women experience depression during pregnancy and following childbirth. Postnatal depression can have severe and prolonged effects on daily routines and the care of a child.
We know that the increasing demands of work can deprive families of valuable time together. More and more workers are employed on a casual or contract basis, some working two or more jobs with irregular hours. These pressures can place terrible stress on relationships. Three million workers have mental ill-heath or are caring for someone with mental ill-health. There are also over 450,000 people struggling on meagre income support who have mental ill-health or are their carers.
We are all aware of the mental and emotional impact of separation and divorce. The breakdown of a relationship is distressing for each partner and can have a lasting impact on children. An especially acute problem is the impact of domestic violence and abuse on women. They are the most likely to suffer mental ill-health, with far higher levels of trauma, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts than the general population.
Communities and crises
Over the past year Australia has been facing tumultuous upheavals, unprecedented in our lifetimes.
Prolonged drought has hit rural communities, threatening livelihoods, straining local economies and eroding community networks. ‘Environmentrelated’ anxieties have led to resignation and loss of hope. Sadly, that loss of hope has seen some take their own lives. Suicide rates in rural and remote communities are 66 per cent higher than in major cities.
The recent bushfires wiped out entire communities. Lives were lost, communities displaced, homes and businesses were destroyed. The greater frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters amplify the impact climate change is having on mental health.
We now face the COVID-19 pandemic. In our vulnerability we realise that we are not in control. Our daily routines have been disrupted and over a million people have lost their jobs or been stood down. Our workplaces and churches have been closed and we have been forced to isolate ourselves from others.
Anxiety and fear of the unknown are normal psychological responses that can spur positive responses to protect ourselves and our communities.
However, severe anxiety or depression can incapacitate us and fear of the unknown can become fear of our neighbour. The solidarity of our community can be damaged and those who are most vulnerable can be put in harm’s way.
The number of people experiencing or at risk of mental ill-health has increased during this period of pandemic. Many more will be distressed or relive previous trauma through the impact the virus is having in their lives.
This time also provides opportunities for our society to act in a way that brings harmony and sustainability to all of life. Already the air is fresher and rivers are running clearer. Greenhouse gas emissions are falling and our ecological footprint is shrinking. Governments have moved responsibly to assist many who have been affected economically. Focusing on the essentials of life has reduced the force of consumerism in our lives, and we are finding new ways to work and maintain our social networks online. We are rediscovering the creativity of love in new ways.
We hope that our society’s shared experience of anxiety and distress will help us to remove the stigma and discrimination that has surrounded mental illness over the centuries.
The real cost of mental health
The Productivity Commission estimates that the cost of mental ill-health and suicide is between $43 and 51 billion each year and that there is an additional cost of $130 billion per annum associated with diminished health and reduced life expectancy. These costs will increase as Australia responds to the pandemic.
But the real cost of mental illness is far more than economic. It is felt in the stigma and discrimination experienced by the most vulnerable – being labelled, shunned, denied support, or not even being recognised. This denies a person’s human dignity and their right to live life to the full. It is a rejection of the gifts that they have to offer and their membership in the Body of Christ.
The stigma associated with mental ill-health can be as debilitating as the symptoms of the illness.
Negative stereotyping of mental illness can have a huge impact socially. People are often avoided, excluded or experience dismissive treatment at community gatherings. Meanwhile, in the workplace people with mental ill-health can be judged incompetent and denied opportunities for advancement.
Economically, people with mental ill-health face greater levels of discrimination when seeking employment, renting accommodation and purchasing insurance. One in four of the poorest 20 per cent of Australians experience high or very high levels of psychological distress compared with only one in ten in the highest income brackets.
In the cultural sphere, we must question the way mental illness is understood and portrayed. Popular culture, films and advertising often ridicule people living with mental ill-health or cast them as being violent. Sensationalist media reports can perpetuate fear and prejudice. In fact, people with mental ill-health are no more violent than the general population and they are more likely to be the victims of violence and crime.
Stigma undermines self-esteem, the treatment of ill-health, and the process of recovery. Tragically, people on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination can internalise negative stereotypes and ‘self-stigmatise’.
Members of the body of Christ
Our society tends to draw away from, or to push away, those who confront us with our frailties and limitations. It is a dynamic that is completely at odds with the story of Jesus. In the Incarnation Jesus takes on the frailty of the human condition. He actively draws near to those who are sick or who have disabilities, those who are poor, marginalised or despised.
Through Jesus, we have become members of one body.
Our parishes, organisations and communities should be places of acceptance, care and healing, not places of rejection or judgement. Furthermore, as Pope Francis constantly reminds us, we have to take the initiative to go out to those pushed to the edges, rather than waiting for them to come to us seeking welcome.
All human beings have frailties and limitations because we are creatures and not ‘gods’. Despite and even through these frailties and limitations, all of us are able to give glory to God and to share in Jesus’ mission.
When we listen closely to the lived experience of people experiencing mental ill-health, we will most likely observe trouble or suffering, but we may also perceive intimate connection with God, flourishing, fruitfulness and life-giving action – signs of God’s grace.
Rather than shying away from human frailty, or seeing it simply as a problem to be solved through scientific knowledge, we need to attend carefully to it, seeking to discern God’s self-communication and call. If mental illness is a unique form of frailty, it might also be a context in which God’s strength is manifested in unique ways. By turning our faces from those of us who are suffering from mental illness, we refuse to learn what they have to teach us about God.
We are called to re-member the Body of Christ by making mental health a key priority, acknowledging people living with mental ill-heath as ‘us’ and not ‘them’. As Bishops, we urge all parishes to make the issue of mental health a priority in their ministry of inclusion and pastoral care. In 2019 we issued mental illness and outreach guidelines for parishes through our Disability Projects Office.
Entitled Do Not Be Afraid, the guidelines highlight very practical steps we can all take, including
• Increasing mental health awareness training,
• Making links with mental health networks in our local area,
• Advocating for the rights of individuals and their families,
• Encouraging peer-to-peer support. Especially when people are experiencing great trauma in their lives, we have a role to maintain and develop relationships affording safety, trust and collaboration.
Members of our community with the lived experience of mental ill-health have much to offer in informing our ministry, and the opportunity for peer support shows how mental health and wellbeing can be fostered in everyone’s lives.
Jesus himself was labelled mad (Mk 3:21; Jn 10:19) and like us he suffered psychological distress (Lk 22:44; Mt 26:37; Mk 14:33; Jn 12:27). If Jesus embraced these human experiences, can we not welcome and value those who are living through them today?