"Depression is a serious, diagnosable condition that will affect one in seven Australians at some point in their lives. We would not be talking about diabetes in these terms."
Mental health experts have criticised former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and ousted MP Bronwyn Bishop for their extraordinary attacks on people with depression, including claims that such people should not receive disability pensions and that most of those who do receive welfare payments are "drug addicts" who are "rorting" the system.
Bishop, who was forced to resign as Speaker of the House of Representatives after using taxpayer funds to take expensive helicopter rides, made the claim (without evidence) on Sky News on Wednesday that people with depression are cheating the welfare system. She was responding to comments made by Tony Abbott, who said people with "a bit of depression" probably shouldn't be on disability pensions. Abbott made the comments in a 2GB radio interview on Wednesday where he said, "We were far too ready to put people on the [disability support pension]".
CEO of mental health organisation Beyondblue, Georgie Harman, told The Huffington Post Australia that the comments from Bishop and Abbott were incorrect.
"Depression is a serious, diagnosable condition that will affect one in seven Australians at some point in their lives," she said.
"We would not be talking about diabetes in these terms."
Associate Professor Sam Harvey, a researcher with Black Dog Institute and the University of New South Wales, said there was "no evidence" to back up Bishop's claims about rorting or drug addiction.
"It's true that some people who suffer from depression also have issues relating to drug or alcohol use but it's incorrect to say most people who have depression suffer from that," he told HuffPost Australia.
"It's also incorrect to say most people on disability support benefits for mental health are rorting the system. There's just no evidence for that."
Harvey said that mental health issues were now the leading factor for incapacity benefits in Australia.
"That's been replicated across the developed world, in most countries in recent times, that mental health has taken over from musculoskeletal injury for incapacity benefits," he said.
"The most likely explanation is that what has occurred is a change in labelling. Many people who end up on incapacity benefits are not for one reason, often for multiple reasons, physical and psychological conditions simultaneously. People have been reluctant to list mental health as the reason, because of the stigma around that, perhaps as shown by [Abbott and Bishop's] comments. But there has been some reduction in stigma, which has allowed for listing of more accurate reasons."
Harman said education around mental health and the workplace was needed.
"It is important that we all educate ourselves about the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety and don't demonise or stigmatise people living with these conditions," she said.
"A better understanding of what we mean by good mental health and how to achieve it will help everyone reach their full potential."
In contrast to the controversial politicians' comments, Harvey said most people with mental health issues actually wanted to return to the workplace, and that returning to work as normal was an important step in recovery.
"We in the mental health sector are acutely aware that we need to do a better job at keeping people with mental illness in the workplace. Large surveys have been done, and the vast majority of people want to be able to work and in general being able to work is good for your mental health," he said.
"The majority of people want to be able to work. Of course you're always able to find isolated cases of people doing the wrong thing, but there has never been any evidence of widescale rorting.
"It is a real issue for us as a society, the cost of mental illness in terms of benefits, but the answers to the problem are around us being able to get people good quality help early in the course of their illness. That's the pathway we'll be able to address this, people getting good clinical and vocational help to keep them in work, which is what they want to do. It's wrong to be blaming individuals for this."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.