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Mark Latham Is Half Right On The Dangers Of A 'Fake Anxiety Epidemic'

By allowing the term ‘mental illness’ to become overused and devoid of its real meaning, it could even -- at a stretch -- put lives at risk.

17/10/2017 9:46 AM AEDT | Updated 17/10/2017 10:57 AM AEDT
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"But by going so broad brush, he risks re-stigmatising mental health concerns."

Mark Latham can sometimes be like a firework that's been set off at a Country Women's Association morning tea. He can get a lot of attention; might frighten a few; might titillate a few, and raises many questions about what is happening.

When it comes to Australia's mental health sector and our ongoing policy debate about how to best promote mental health in our community, Latham has just done that in a way I believe is welcome.

Namely, in a series of typically noticeable social media pieces, Latham has seemingly questioned the validity of what's being done and said under the broader guise of anxiety and mental health including in our workplaces, where the number of employees reporting concerns appears to be significantly increasing. Latham's suggestion seems to go that, if we allow every personal issue in a workplace or otherwise to be labelled as anxiety or mental health-related, we inappropriately risk significantly increased costs.

Latham's also essentially objected to the 'medicalisation' of mental health, e.g. the indisputably rising tendency to have doctors and mental health professionals diagnose and largely medically approach the treatment of what some argue are emotional concerns rather than illnesses per se. (Indeed, we have one of the highest rates of anti-depressant consumption in the world, which in no way faults doctors for doing their jobs.)

At the risk of injecting myself with timber splinters, I believe that Latham is both right and wrong in his critique.

On the one hand, he is right to suggest that 'mental health' cannot be allowed to become the new Y2K bug. A person's mental health cannot become the default explanation for any conflict, discontent or lack of performance in a workplace, home or relationship. Moreover, we cannot allow the prescription of medicines and/or clinical treatment to become the auto-pilot response for any sense of sadness, loneliness, or adversity that people may experience. All of that might suit some established commercial interests and/or mental health service providers, but, as Latham suggests, it's just not prudent or sustainable. Or, I'd add it's a solution -- but to a different problem.

If we go down this path, and we may well do so as other explanations for life's ups and downs like religion and philosophy take a further backseat, we put much at risk. There's what he's already pointed out: potentially increased and unfunded financial liability of people's "claims", their treatment and their re-integration into society and the workforce following episodes of "depression", "stress" and "anxiety" and other things that may have once been alternatively understood as unhappiness, tiredness or nervousness. Without checks and balances, the social cheque could be mammoth.

If we re-make, for example, not liking one's job every day and every way, or suffering from occasional burn-out or brown-out, into an actionable, workplace-based mental health condition, how many people will there be left to turn up on Monday morning?

Or, cut another way, will it become okay to rationalise most workplace errors, misdemeanours or poor judgement as 'mental health related'? Indeed, at the outer end of the spectrum, and too many of us have been suitably shocked when we have seen it, using mental health as an alibi for unacceptable behaviour is ethically repugnant (e.g. it's called lying for personal benefit), and so disrespectful to those who truly suffer in silence.

I believe that by lumping everything in the mental health basket we also -- unintentionally -- do a disservice to our emotional well-being and mental wealth itself. By allowing the term 'mental illness' itself to become overused and devoid of its real meaning, it could even at a stretch put lives at risk.

If 'everyone' has a mental health issue, those who are acutely suffering and struggling with diagnosed illnesses like clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses may not get as much of the attention and resources that they really need and deserve.

Awareness of and engagement with mental health by the general community, as welcome as it is from a humane perspective, can also spread us too thin to deal with the deepest of our citizens' health problems. Given the link of mental illness to suicidality, this is frightening.

That's not only true with people with 'substantial' illnesses. While more self-awareness, talking to someone else, and approaches like meditation, yoga, mindfulness, coaching and counselling can hardly hurt people who are unhappy, they are certainly no silver bullet. Perhaps, it's not necessarily about more self-awareness alone; it's about more realistic acceptance of life and work exercises that can be really shitty from time to time.

Finally, by looking at so much through a mental health lens, and taking on the words without the wisdom, we risk becoming unfair. A good worked example in this respect is Mark Latham himself. Too many times, for example, I have heard people very readily apply some generally negative pseudo-diagnosis to his mental health, rather than considering that: a) he's a professional public provocateur doing what he sees as his role, and; b) in another era, we potentially would have characterised his approach as alternatively controversial, idiosyncratic, outspoken, analytical, thoughtful, and/or gruff -- rather than applying some inaccurate pop psychology prism and bizarrely looking back to how he may have been parented as an explanation for his actions. It's codswallop and it's ultimately really unkind.

Having said all that, Latham is wrong too. By going so broad brush, he risks re-stigmatising mental health concerns. For too long, those with genuine mental illnesses -- and generally those who were emotionally troubled -- suffered in silence or were left to individually confront deep and often inexplicable pain. Through science and compassion, we have become a better community than that now and are rightly removing the risible stigmas around mental illness. Some of Latham's comments cut across this positive grain, even if it's not his intent (and I genuinely believe it is not).

The bottom line is this: For a long time, whether it was at work or more broadly, we didn't talk about mental health and that was bad for many people. Now, we're all rightfully trying to talk about mental health and our emotional lives because we want to do more good for more people -- and because a new generation of workers is demanding it in their workplaces. However, blanket use or misuse of mental health-related concepts isn't any more likely to help more people and it may have real unintended consequences. The sun shines every day, but the sky shouldn't fall every day.

Frankly, and some will disagree, the discussion of mental health in our workplaces is largely new terrain. I've personally seen with CEOs that most have great intent, but have not quite yet worked out the right way to navigate this space in our businesses and organisations.

Just last week, I saw an interesting discussion at HuffPost Australia, where some staff said work lives and personal lives should remain separate, while others thought that that divide is not realistic in a digital world; a challenge for HuffPost's management that's not dissimilar to the one faced by hundreds of other workplaces right now too.

More broadly, while we are managing the day-to-day of people saying they feel depressed at work or don't know how they fit, the truth is we are yet to strike the right rhetorical or conceptual balance --and the right mix of roles and responsibilities -- between what is sometimes diagnosable mental illness, sometimes social angst, sometimes workplace pressure, sometimes our roles as bosses and staff, and sometimes our aspirations for individual happiness.

Very kindly, the folks at HuffPost have agreed to me having a go at that language, balance and mix at that balance through some regular columns on workplace and executive wellbeing. It may not have the pyrotechnic effect of some commentators, but I'm keen to have the conversation with you -- as readers, managers and employees of various organisations -- about your views about how we try to build our social and financial wealth at the same time we build our mental wealth.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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