By Daniel Conaghan
Mental Health Week 2014 concluded with the Mental Awareness Foundation and its walk for awareness. Now in its third year, the walk saw the biggest crowd yet, with an estimated 500 turning up to show their support. The focus of MAF, similar to many other mental health organisations, is to break the taboo on mental illness. The foundation was started after Wesley Vasile lost two friends to suicide in 2011 and decided to try and take action with the help of others touched by suicide.
Supporters gathered before the Walk For Awareness.
There were a number of speakers from well-known mental health organisations and government institutions alike. Grow CEO Clare Guilfoyle encouraged those interested in raising awareness to look into Grow. “There’s a strong emphasis on community building and developing friendships and people connecting up with the community.”
Another partner of the MAF, Mates In Construction, is an organisation that focuses on supporting workers in the Australian Construction industry, where the suicide rate in men is three times that of the average worker. MIC has trained over 50000 workers in general awareness and a further 3000 with additional training. These 3000 ‘gatekeepers’ are identified by a green hardhat sticker, showing workers that they are someone they can talk to if they need to.
Police Commissioner Ian Stewart addressed the crowd before the walk got underway, thanking them for the enthusiastic turnout. “This is a really important event, but it’s the concept that’s the issue. That’s raising awareness about the positive sides, and things that we can all do,” Mr Stewart says, “Every person who gets better educated about how we can help people with mental issues; that can save a life. So thank you to every one of you.”
Mr Stewart went on to reassure the crowd that the police are as mortal as they are, with mental health an issue even in the police force. “We are always looking for better ways to provide the service to the public when the call for service we get involves someone who’s having a critical mental issue. And that happens on a daily basis, many of you would know that. It really is important for us to work with our people to find better solutions to how we intervene in that very first critical phase when someone is in trouble.”
Finally, Mr Stewart had a valuable message for any media attending the event. “This is a plea for help and a plea for recognition from the media who are here today. It is really unfortunate in my view that much of the media stigmatises mental health issues when we’re involved in critical incidences, in particular when that person is a high profile person in the community. Sports-persons, members of a political organisation or a big-name business person, we have that stigma attached to them that it’s a mental health issue. Quite honestly that’s a really bad thing because it provides a negative. People start to want to hide behind the veil and not tell anyone that they’ve got issues themselves. So please, my plea today to the media is: do not stigmatise people with mental illness. Do not cause hurt to the families and friends of those people. Please put the positive on it and make sure all of us look at mental issues and work out better ways of intervening and helping our fellow brothers and sisters in our community.”
Ged Farmer is the Client Engagement Officer for Openminds, as well as part of the organising committee for the Sanity Fair, and has been present at a number of events this week, including the Sanity Fair on Saturday. Having lost friends to suicide, Ged was no stranger to what kind of stigma surrounds the issue and how important it is to dispel it in all its forms. “It really knocks you down when that sort of thing happens, and often the blame is placed with the person who has committed suicide. One of the main things that came out of the message here today was understanding and having compassion for the person who has done that,” Ged says, “For a long time people have said things like ‘it’s a selfish thing to do’, but you don’t know what’s going on for that person that’s gotten to that point. Sometimes there’s a trigger and they don’t know they’re going to do it themselves, it can be something that happens really quickly.”
“Creating awareness within the community that we need to reduce stigma, that’s a really important thing. We need to reduce discrimination that goes along with people who have experienced a mental health condition; often people are discriminated within their workplace, within relationships, within their families and community. If we can try and reduce the stigma and discrimination first and foremost, we’re going to be able to have the real conversation about mental health where people are understanding how widespread it is and how easily people are affected by mental health. And also recognising their own mental health, whether it’s being in good mental health or needing to take care of your mental health, because there are signs that your mental health is not in good shape.”
Ged was proud of how much good the MAF founders had done in such a short time. “What a wonderful legacy for the friends that they’ve lost. To see something like this here, for the family and friends of those people that lost their lives. To see something like this come together is so heart-warming and emotional, and I’m really proud to be a part of this.”
If you or anyone you know is suffering from mental stress, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.