Mental illness no longer the elephant in the room

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For too long, mental health issues have been the elephant in the room – not acknowledged, and not spoken about.

But the Australian Private Hospitals Association is looking to change all that with the help of a herd of elephants.

Well, inflatable elephants at least!

The plastic pachyderms have been sent out across the country this week as part of Mental Health Week and will pop up at tourist spots, shopping centres, schools and hospitals.

Toowong Private Hospital CEO, Christine Gee, said the private system played a vital role in caring for people suffering from mental illness.

“Ensuring Australians are empowered with personal choice and rapid access to affordable hospital care of the highest quality is a key driver of private hospitals,” she said.

“The Australian Government’s support for people with mental health needs through the 2018 private health insurance reform, allowing a once in a lifetime immediate upgrade to health insurance policies for individuals to be able to access treatment within our private mental health facilities, was a very welcome measure and has assisted thousands of Australians in that time of health crisis.

“It also highlights the key role that the private sector plays in the treatment and care of people with mental health conditions.”

The statistics are sobering. About a third of women and just over a fifth of men, aged 15-24 have a mental or behavioural condition; and up to 3.2 million Australians experience an anxiety related condition.

In 2018, more than 3000 people died from intentional self-harm and of those, 75 percent were male.

“Our ‘elephant in the room’ message plays to the important role that we all have to continue to break down barriers and stigma related to mental health issues,” Ms Gee said.

“They (the inflatable elephants) are always a huge hit in the community and definitely a talking point which helps in our efforts to education the community about mental health.”

In 2017 – 2018, the private sector offered 32 stand alone private mental health hospitals and 33 mental health units located within private general hospitals.

During the same time period, private hospitals provided 958,138 days of overnight inpatient care and 269,832 days of ambulatory care.

Sydney’s Wesley Hospital will be teaming up with Surf Life Saving New South Wales (SLSNSW) to drive awareness of mental health issues – on the beach, in the workplace, and within the local community.

The hospital will bring their giant inflatable elephant, ‘Wesley’, to Avalon Beach Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC).

Avalon Beach SLSC will set-up flags on the beach and their lifesavers will don their red and yellow patrol caps for the occasion.

Wesley Mission CEO, the Rev Dr Keith Garner, said eight in 10 Australians would know someone with a mental health issue.

All of us have a role to play in dispelling the silence surrounding mental illness and to support the people–friends, family and colleagues–who are suffering,” he said.

The figures of professional emergency services workers experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are alarming.

Almost 10 percent of these workers experience high or very high psychological distress, such as PTSD, compared to four percent of the general population.

Patricia Newton, founding chairwoman and co-ordinator of Surf Life Saving Sydney Northern Beaches Traumatic Incident Peer Support (TIPS) team, said ensuring the mental wellbeing of surf lifesavers was vital.

“Our TIPS team has been providing surf lifesaving members and their families with crucial support for more than 25 years,” she said.

“Our motto is ‘be there, stay there’ and we know the importance of being on-call, down at the beach, when a critical incident occurs.

“Providing a mental health support service to all involved is crucial in these events, and we’re excited to joining with Wesley Hospital, as they bring their giant elephant to the beach to promote awareness around just that.”

Dr John Kearney, clinical psychologist and Director of Psychological Services at Wesley Hospital Kogarah, specialises in PTSD treatment.

“Around one-fifth of emergency service workers report high-levels of psychological stress and do not always recognise the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD in themselves,” he said.

“By joining with Surf Life Saving NSW, we’re encouraging the public to talk more openly about the ‘elephant in the room’ and increase public awareness and appreciation of the unique and challenging role fulfilled by emergency service personnel and staff.”

The Wesley Hospital is also teaming up with the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) to drive awareness of the demands professional sport can have on the mental health of elite athletes.

Up to 45 percent of athletes experience stress, anxiety and depression and studies show that many also have concerns about their mental or emotional wellbeing, after retiring.

Alice Kunek recently returned from a nine-month stint playing basketball in Europe to join the Brydens Sydney Uni Flames.

The 28-year-old, who has played more than 200 WNBL games and won a gold medal with the Opals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, knows first-hand the toll professional sport can have on your psyche, as well as the feelings of isolation that often go with it.

“Being away from home for an extended period was tough on my game – both physically and mentally,” she said.

“Maintaining a positive mindset can often be a struggle when your game is repeatedly being scrutinised and you’re trying to overcome expectations, especially around finals time.

“I believe that good mental health is crucial for the success of all professional athletes, so we need to ensure that we have a great support system around us.

“We have so much opportunity, but it can come at a cost if we don’t look after our mind and body.”

On Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Buderim Private Hospital will be shining a light on mental health issues, with the help of their own elephant.

Hospital general manager, Karen Clark, said mental illness was still often misunderstood.

“With the help of mental health clinicians from our Cooinda Mental Health Service, this year we are focusing our efforts on providing our community with education to help break down the stigma surrounding mental health,” Mrs Clark said.

“Mental health is often misunderstood and these attitudes tend to perpetuate so we are using the elephant to provide education to our Sunshine Coast community.

“Our hope is that people use this information to feel empowered when having important conversations with friends, family and colleagues about their mental health and these people feel listened to, supported and encouraged to get the help they need.”

The Cooinda Mental Health Service is an $11 million 33-bed facility which the Buderim Private Hospital opened in 2013 to meet the growing need for mental health services on the Sunshine Coast.

Cooinda also offers a range of outpatient programs addressing depression, anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Toowong Private Hospital CEO, Christine Gee, has urged members of the community to keep an eye out for elephants – there will even be one appearing at Floriade in Canberra.

“These elephants really shine a light on the services and care available within our facilities,” she said.

“Our hospitals are all passionate about breaking down the stigma that is sometimes still associated with mental health and our elephants will be very busy getting out and about into local communities.”

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