Last Friday on Brisbane local radio, ABC managing director Mark Scott spoke with host Spencer Howson about the week’s two major organisational concerns. The first was the “Mental As” suite of programming, which aimed to support national discussion during Mental Health Week. The second was funding cuts to the ABC. The corporation’s most senior employee was able to speak to the need for talk on what most everyone agrees is an urgent health concern and the need for funding to the kind of broadcaster that airs such talk. The curious thing was that amid Scott’s week of mental health-themed television, the question of funding to mental health services was itself barely raised.

This is not to say that the “Mental As” week was awful, although some of it really was. The “Crack Up” evening of variety fundraising was largely a roll call of cross-network do-gooders for whom Looking Very Concerned in public forms part of their personal brand. Jessica Rowe, who has previously written on the powerful topic of a woman’s right to choose cosmetic surgery, was there, and so was David Koch, who famously followed the harsh Kokoda march in a T-shirt advertising his network. Everyone on this and many other programs during the week agreed that “no one ever talks about mental health”– even though the most cursory search of any national news database will show that mental health is up there with the evil of Muslims as one of our preferred objects of journalism — and everyone congratulated themselves for finally “shining a light” on a topic that is so often illuminated by concern.

It is just a bare lie to say that mental health is an unpopular or hidden topic. Like any utility journalist, I have written about mental health dozens of times, most speciously in a 1999 book on the everyday management of depressive disorder that said what most articles and broadcasts of the time and of the present say. To wit: it’s really important that other people understand mental illness. We must, I said to my shame, Raise Awareness.

And this false illumination has continued in the 20 years since Elizabeth Wurtzel’s best-selling memoir of depression, Prozac Nation, was published. The overwhelming advice of writers and broadcasters is that those who do not have mental illness should try to make the effort to understand those who do. I have no intention of re-reading my own shitty chapter that remonstrates the mentally well for their failure to understand the mentally dishevelled, but I can be fairly sure that the guidance is identical to that offered all last week by the ABC. The best thing, apparently, one can do for mental illness is to understand it and describe it, as we were repeatedly told during the execrable “Crack Up” and other programs, in more sensitive terms.

Now, I am not going to advocate for a new era of oblivious language and mid-century fear of “madness”. In my own experience with a reactive depression, I found that the sympathy of others was quite soothing. But this, to be frank, was as nothing when compared to the comprehensive professional care I was able to elicit thanks to my employer’s insurance. Understanding friends pacified me, but strong pharmaceuticals and a tedious but effective program of counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy was what kept me away from the knife drawer.

And so it is for any individual who encounters the hardship of what is called mental illness. Understanding, of oneself and by others, is potentially quite useful. But treatment, which remains in short supply, is essential.

Nonetheless, the ABC used its programming to urge individuals to recognise the symptoms of mental illness in themselves and others. There were a few programs, such as the fascinating but not ultimately instructive Changing Minds, which gave us a view of patients and professionals working to combat thought disorders. But I am not at all sure how this artful voyeurism functions to usefully “shine a light” on psychosis. If someone invites you to her wedding with Jesus, there’s a good chance that you already know to call the high dependency unit and that your friend has been a previous client. Your fear or lack of understanding of people beset by what we once called demons is, really, the least of their concerns. If we discount, as the ABC largely appeared to, the glaring fact that mental illness impacts social groups with less material and social capital — “it can affect anyone” is the democratising hallmark of discussion, which rarely goes on to conclude “but it tends to affect certain socioeconomic groups in far greater numbers” — and that what they need are better living conditions, then what they need is treatment services. In the post-political broadcast of “Mental As” it is dangerously taken as read that these treatment services are easy to secure.

Well, they’re not. And I understand that it is a convention of journalism not to dissuade mentally unwell people from seeking help but, really, it just seems pointless at best and damaging at worst to uphold the falsehood that care is there if you need it. If I were to take the advice of “Mental As” and try to get a shrink to treat a depression that has recurred for 15 years, I’d be waiting weeks to see a co-pay idiot called Neville who is required to kick me off subsidy after 12 sessions and then give me the advice to “treat myself” with a nice facial. I’d rather hoped that Neville could treat me, but as things turned out, it was cheaper and more effective to turn long-term to beauty therapy. Even Neville admits it. There’s some fucking Awareness; none of which I saw during the 10 hours of “Mental As” programming I watched. The only Awareness needed is that there is “no stigma” in the commonly diagnosed mental illnesses like depression and anxiety that we are constantly talking about not talking about. Personally, I don’t give a shit if there is “no stigma”. I do, however, give a shit that there is not adequate treatment.

But, of course, this is “negative thinking” in a Utopian week of programming that makes like there are services for all those who are, we are persistently reminded, from “all walks of life”. There may be after this week, broadly lauded as “healing” and “inspirational”, a reduced stigma attached to mental illness. But there is, it seems, a “stigma” in expecting the national broadcaster to engage with the facts of the poverty that creates mental illness and the poverty of nationally funded services to treat it.

It’s all very well and good for attractive entertainers to profitably confess to their own vulnerability. But this does shit-all, or possibly even harms, the question of the urgent need for services.

The ABC can claim to outrun such critique by its charitable telethon, which raised $1 million in funds for an organisation devoted not to treatment but early career clinical research. So it’s OK that no critique of a failing health system emerged because they’re plugging the gap by helping out an organisation that studies, among other things “how stigma toward mental health problems is a barrier to people getting help”. Let’s end the stigma so we can help fund ending the stigma.

There may be a theoretical approach to comprehensive preventive maintenance of mental health, but there is no system to support it. Anyone of limited means who has recognised the symptoms of what is called mental illness in themselves or a companion will know that, short of presentation at A&E, timely treatment for this kind of distress is very hard to come by.

This is not to say that the compassion and awareness promulgated by the ABC, and nearly all other media outlets, is in a zero-sum battle for primacy with material services. One can have both. But the ABC, the nation’s biggest employer of journalists, has a responsibility to report not only what “you” can do to “fight the stigma” but what government isn’t doing to treat the symptoms and causes of mental health. And what it isn’t doing is a lot.

In a week full of some pretty gaudy grandstanding talking about what we never talk about (but, in fact, do talk about with unambitious warmth and moral injunctions to “fight the stigma” in media all the frigging time), the only real beneficiaries are the celebs who will be congratulated for their bravery. The denigration of our healthcare system continues apace and in lockstep with the ABC, which continues its slide into grotesque documentary championing of The Power of the Individual.

*This article originally appeared on Daily Review

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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