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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Despite its prevalence in our community, the stigma associated with having a mental illness is evident and challenging for those with mental health struggles. Similarly, I am aware that many people are self-conscious about seeing a therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist/counsellor/social worker or other type of mental health professional, despite their services being available for a multitude of issues, conversations and conditions. It’s a shame that this stigma is so prominent as I believe the benefits of seeing some kind of mental health professional are numerous and do not just pertain to those with a serious mental health condition. Therapists are available for individuals, families and couples who just want someone to talk to, to listen to their stories, provide them with a sounding board and commonly, some feedback as to how to proceed, what to tackle next, or how to work with a troubling situation, person or circumstance.

It is with this sentiment that I wonder whether the language we use is a significant contributing factor preventing more people accessing and seeking out these kinds of health services. When we have a sore back, we have no trouble going to the doctor and asking for a referral to a chiropractor, or seeing a teacher of the Alexander Technique for some help with postural realignment and lifestyle changes. When we have a sports injury, we see a physiotherapist, or perhaps, someone even more specialised. Generally, we seem to have no (internal) trouble with seeing a podiatrist, dermatologist or occupational therapist. So then why have we, collectively, created an invisible barrier barring us from seeking and receving guidance and help for what is intrinsically associated with what is arguably our most vital bodily organ, our brain?

Each week, I attend a range of appointments. This is not unusual for any of us lucky enough to live in a developed society with relatively easy and cost-friendly access to a range of health services. However, I’ve noticed that, at least until recently, I felt some sort of shame saying to others that I had a session booked with my psychiatrist, and instead of just saying so, I would omit the ‘location of difficulty’ or ‘source of stress’ if you like, and just say I had ‘an appointment’. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with that, and privacy to such an extent should be our right. Except the problem arises with the emotional guilt or side-effect associated with that omission, and I believe is comes from the stigma we as a society have attached to mental health.

Unfortunately, those receiving care for their mental health are often referred to, and immediately though of, as having a mental illness or mental disorder. For some, this is appropriate and true and I am not saying these terms should not be used, per say. Rather, I question; is it possible that due do these terms so often being used interchangeably, we are in fact, unintentionally, reinforcing that stigma and subsequently preventing ordinary people from seeking out mental health services? That people won’t see a therapist because they don’t want to be thought to have a ‘mental disorder’?

So, I guess I am kind of addressing two separate, yet interrelated, stigmas: one with diagnosed mental illness, and another with mental health care in general. I believe that neither are justified and both should be dispelled, but maybe starting with the latter will help to lift the stigma from the former. And to do so, I suggest the following:

Let’s change our language. Let’s start referring to ‘mental wellbeing’, adding a positive connotation to the world of mental health care. We know that to achieve optimal health we must strive for a state of complete physical, social and mental wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (WHO, 1946), and as such, are entitled to and worthy of receiving assistance and professional care for all elements of our wellbeing.

If you’re going through a series of life changes, you’re in an interim phase between jobs/houses/relationships, you’re needing some guidance, or would just like an impartial, in-judgemental face to talk to, seek out a professional to provide you with that support. You may not need ‘help’, you mightn’t be in a crisis, you might even be at the height of your career. But, by taking care of your mental wellness, you’re actively maintaing or working towards achieving your optimal health. And what better way to live your life than that?

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I was just alerted to this post by journalist and self-proclaimed health advocate, Sarah Wilson, via a friend on Facebook. Whilst I understand Wilson has gone sugar-free for her own personal health reasons, I believe the way she distributes and promotes her message and ‘diet’ of a life without sugar as a lifestyle change is very troubling. The I Quit Sugar program advises followers to cut out all sugar, including fresh, dried and juiced fruit for at least the first six weeks. However, dried and juiced fruits are ‘to be eliminated for good’.

At the conclusion of this piece, Wilson writes:

I wanted to share this today because I know so many of you who follow this blog are starting the 8-Week Program today. And I don’t think it’s helpful embarking on the journey thinking that it’s about perfection. Or rigidity. And I am not a guru. I’m working through it (sugar-free living, life, acts of self-sabotage) just as hard as you. I say this often – quitting sugar is an experiment. You see what it does, what it brings up, where it takes you. And I say this just as often – life is practice. It’s the practice, not some rigid finality that is what it’s all about.

But, I’d encourage you to read the whole post. I really don’t think it sends the the right kind of messages to anyone, particularly to a whole new bunch of potential sugar-quitters. The diet sounds incredibly ‘rigid’ to me and as someone who’s been stuck in many rigid patterns and routines for many years now, I can say that anything so strict and extreme cannot be considered ‘healthy’.

I commented on the blog post, sadly underneath many women who’d claimed the piece to be ‘inspirational’, calling Wilson their ‘hero’. One commenter says:

I was having some tension in a relationship, so I told myself I deserved a box of TV snacks. And they don’t satiate like they once did when junk was my bestie. Groan. Back on the bike.

Yet, another, Rebecca, had this to say:

Hi Sarah, thank you for this post. It is endearingly honest of you to admit to the occasional slip-up. However, I think it would be useful for you to discuss in one of your posts the concept of denial and how it can lead to bingeing in some people. I am – in principle – very much in favour of your IQS tenets. But, having myself gone through an anorexic adolescence, and having remained very entrenched in abstinence behaviour all the way through my twenties (I am now in my early forties), I had to learn to allow myself to eat EVERYTHING in order to get well. I had to completely re-set my mindset and tell myself no food was ‘bad’. I had to free myself of food-guilt! And now, when I try completely abstaining from sugar, I find that it triggers memories of my old, bad anorexic times, which I never want to go back to. Then, as if in sub-conscious protest at those memories, as if in refusal ever to return to abstinence-land, I find myself rebelling by bingeing on either sugary things, or on fatty non-sugary things like cheese and coconut butter. I don’t think I am alone on this, and I don’t think you have ever really addressed these issues, though I have seen them brought up by readers and critics before. What do you think, Sarah? I think your readers would welcome this discussion.

Funnily enough, Wilson is yet to reply. Many commenters talk about ‘balance’ and ‘vulnerability’. But is cutting out a whole food group really leading you to a life of ‘balance’? We are fed so many lies and conflicting arguments about health and food these days, it’s just a shame that a woman with such a presence in Australian culture is promoting these extreme measures as a pathway to better physical and mental health, when the consequences – particularly mentally – could be severely traumatic and disordered.

Here’s what I had to say to Wilson:

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I concur with the words of Paula Kotowicz, who responded to Wilson with the following:

Hi Sarah. The response you describe must have been quite frightening for you. I have to admit though that as a therapist who specialises in eating disorders, disordered eating and body image issues, I really do question the helpfulness of completely avoiding an entire food group, without medical necessity. Obviously medical necessity is a whole other thing…
To some vulnerable people in our society, it simply provides an excuse to restrict and control and can trigger these people into disordered eating or even into bona fide eating disorders. My other concern are the notions of ‘failing’ or ‘slip-ups’ as described by many of the readers in their comments. A great deal of my work is focusing on helping people to develop self-compassion and a greater sense of self overall – including self-worth, self-value. Self-kindness in a nutshell. While you may wonder what this has to do with anything, imagine being able to say to yourself: “So I ate the croissants… Did I enjoy them? No. Will I do this again? Almost definitely. But for some reason, I needed to eat them and that’s ok. I am human after all…” Being harsh on ourselves, not only does not help, but makes us feel so much worse in the long run because it deconstructs our sense of self and causes us to beat up on ourselves.
Isn’t it possible that there is a happy medium in there somewhere? It’s not crack. Just food.
Thanks for sharing and opening up the discussion.

Already this post has sparked controversy across the media sphere with Mia Freedman sharing it and questioning Wilson’s message via Facebook. I particularly like these first two comments on Freedman’s post:

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Basically, I’m fed up (no pun intended). We need role models that promote a truly balanced wellbeing without restrictions, stress and inflexible rules. Our culture needs a healthy overhaul but for now the onus is on us to take in the good and reject the disordered behaviour we are so often presented with. If only it were that easy.

I was obsessed with makeup.

I wouldn’t step out of the house without a bit of foundation (or a lot), whether it be to school, to the gym, a family event or a gathering with friends.

The first time I wore mascara (other than on stage) was one lunchtime at school. A good friend of mine thought it might be something fun to try out considering both my eyebrows and eyelashes are naturally blonde and barely visible. After a few minutes of anxious blinking and smudges around my eyes, I received many compliments and was pretty pleased with the impact such a small adjustment could have. I think I wore it every day henceforth.

Makeup has a transformative power to, at least superficially, turn a person in to someone with a newfound confidence. This might stem from the fact that by painting your face with colours, liners, pastes and concealers, you’ve suddenly gained a protective layer that acts as barrier between you and other people and nerve-wracking situations. Makeup can be a mask, a barrier, and can help to stimulate a ‘character’ or ‘persona’ for you to ‘wear’, (one of the reasons it is used in theatre and on stage).

Makeup has many benefits. As I’m naturally very pale, makeup also helps to brighten me up a bit, and I’ve often been told that I look washed out or unwell when I’ve ventured out au naturale. Makeup also helps me to look older, which as I’ve mentioned before, is somewhat comforting and reassuring after constantly being told I look 16 years old.

Regardless, over the past few years I’ve become pretty comfortable going to uni or out to see friends without that protective layer. Makeup is fun, and there is an art to good makeup application and a beautiful look, I just no longer feel like I have to hide behind walls of Maybelline matt mousse and bronzed-up cheekbones to feel comfortable in my own (facial) skin.

This is all well and good, yet I know many girls (and boys?) struggle with the notion of going about their days makeup free. It can be confronting at first, and you may feel vulnerable, exposed or uncertain. I’d like to say it’s easy to give up the powders, bronzers and blush, but I personally found it challenging. However, if you’ve been thinking about going makeup free and are working up the confidence to do so, or you’re looking for a reason to give it a go, I’ve got a terrific motive for you.

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Makeup Free Me is encouraging women across Australia to take on the challenge of going without makeup for 24 hours. With a mission to empower women to develop and nurture positive body image, Makeup Free Me wants to help create a world where women love and celebrate who they are. The event is on Friday 30 August and is supporting The Butterfly Foundation who is dedicated to bringing about change to the culture, policy and practice in the prevention, treatment and support of those affected by eating disorders and negative body image.

I’ve written a piece on the campaign for The Modern Woman’s Survival Guide which you can read here. And I’d encourage you to get involved and give it a go. You deserve to feel pretty, worthy and comfortable in your own skin without all those layers protecting your true identity. So do it for yourself – what have you got to lose?

I am writing a series of pieces documenting my thoughts on the lead up to the Australian Federal Election to be held on 7 September 2013. As a young woman, it will be my first experience of voting in a Federal election. I am not endorsing any particular party or politician. All opinions are mine unless stated otherwise, and while I will try to include honest information at all times, nothing should be taken as fact without further investigation. You can view my first post here and second post here.

Men in Black

Men in Black

With the election less than five weeks away, the Government and the Opposition are well and truly into their campaigning across the country. Both parties seem to be most concerned with the state of the Australian economy, and the action of the Reserve Bank today, has only given the economy a more prominent position in the debating arena. The Australian dollar is down, as are interest rates, but so is spending. Australians are saving their money, and as a result, the retail and business sectors as struggling. Shops are closing, private organisations are going into voluntary administration and liquidation sales seem to be on every second street corner.

Asylum seekers are making every effort to enter our country in the hope of a better future. Both major political parties are doing their best to ‘Stop the Boats’. I am currently reading Geoffrey Robertson QC’s Crimes Against Humanity. Robertson speaks in detail about the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the agency’s ‘hurculean task’ of supervising millions of asylum seekers and processing their claims.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. Yet politicians are deeming these so-called boat people, ‘economic immigrants’, therefore denying the legitimacy of their asylum seeking.

It is interesting in the context of the 2001 Tampa case where Australia had the humanitarian duty to consider those on board the sinking boat’s claims to asylum. I am reading the 4th edition of Robertson’s book, published in 2012.

Robertson writes: ‘Many Asian countries refuse to sign the [International Convention on Refugees] and have become notorious for pushing ‘boat people’ back to sea as prey for pirates (Malaysia) or for turning a blind eye to the bribery which makes them a transit point for people-smugglers (Indonesia).’

He then comments on the Tampa case, saying the country bribed Nauru to take the majority of the refugees, which ‘may be explained by the fact that the government was in the throes of an election, and took the opportunity to boost its popularity at the expense of refugees and respect for international law’. Sound familiar? It’s great to see how much progress our nation has made in the name of equality, acceptance and diversity, (note the sarcasm).

Labor says it will increase the country’s refugee intake from 13,750 to 20,000 per year, inline with the recommendation of the Expert Panel of Asylum Seekers. The Coalition argues any increase in the quota is both unaffordable and would send the wrong message to people smugglers. The Greens say they will boost capacity of UN in Indonesia and Malaysia to speed up assessment and resettlement, yet as mentioned above, these countries have not signed the Convention, and thus are less likely to be open to much negotiation.

The Solomon Islands are also uninterested in being a part of the Australian Government’s new ‘Pacific Solution’ for processing and resettling asylum seekers. However, the country’s Prime Minister makes a good point: ‘We have to respect the choice of asylum seekers, and the choices that these people have made is that they want to come to Australia.’

The state of mental health care in Australia and across the world is dismal. This piece published in the New York Times is incredibly poignant in describing the urgency of improved and expanded mental health care in the States, but translates easily to other nations, including Australia.

Labor has the $2.2 billion mental health packages announced in May 2011. The funding aims to provide ‘genuine, practical and sustainable mental health reform to ensure that Australians living with mental illness get the care they need, when they need it’. Both the ALP and the Coalition will back EPPIC, an integrated and comprehensive mental health service model aimed at addressing the needs of people aged 15-24 with early psychosis, and promote the growth of treatment and opportunities for those with mental health conditions, including employment prospects.

However, progress and action in regards to mental health seems to be happening on a smaller, state-wide basis. New South Wales police will receive specialised mental health training from as soon as next month, while in Victoria, Labor’s mental health parliamentary secretary Wade Noonan has said ‘Our acute mental health services have reached breaking point under the Napthine Government, which increases the risks to both staff and patients’. In a similar response to assaults on nurses, the ACT government will speed-up the timetable to build Canberra’s first secure mental health unit after receiving Opposition support for the proposal.

Yet despite all of this, Former Australian of the year Pat McGorry, Brain and Mind Research Institute head Ian Hickie, and former chairman of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, John Mendoza, have today called for and end to political talk without subsequent action and voiced concern that neither parties had ensured adequate funding for mental health.

Tying two issues into one, the Greens will commit to setting up an independent panel of medical and mental health experts to monitor asylum seekers sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru under Labor and Coalition policies, after reports of suicide threats, hunger strikes and severe trauma amongst asylum seekers.

Of course, there are other significant issues and policies in this year’s federal election including education, jobs, a price on carbon, transport, and DisabilityCare. The ABC is hosting an educational tool called Vote Compass, that is designed to help you ‘discover how you fit in the Australian political landscape’. By answering a few short questions, you will be given a numerical and visual representation of how your values and interests sit in comparison with those of the major political parties. You can find Vote Compass here.

Additionally, make sure you’re enrolled to vote. You must be enrolled by 8pm on Monday 12 August. Visit the Australian Electoral Commission here.