Depression, stigma and Aussie visas

This post has been floating around in my head for a while now and it has been ushered into reality by a confluence of events that seem unlikely bedfellows – the downing of a passenger jet, a bid to make a short film, an uncomfortable memory, and the Australian visa process.

The incomprehensible actions of pilot Andreas Lubitz, in seemingly deliberately bringing down Germanwings flight 9525 along with nearly 150 passengers has brought forth wave after wave of comment about how to deal with mental illness in people in positions of responsibility.

Most of these comments appear to be along the lines of monitoring, checking and disbarring those who don’t pass those tests from assuming any position of trust or power.

But there’s a dilemma at the heart of all of this which is, unlike, say cancer, infectious diseases or physical injuries, mental illness, and particularly depression, rely on the person affected reaching out for help in the first place. To stigmatise them; to hound them; to bar their way in life until they are ‘above suspicion’ is also to suppress the likelihood of them seeking help in the first place.

Just before the Germanwings tragedy, I received an email from a friend whose wife was launching a Kickstarter project to make a film about how depression and mental illness affect young people in Scotland. The project came about as a means of responding in some useful way to the tragic suicide of a young dancer, and as a way of helping other young people to understand mental illness, how it can affect them and where to go for help if it does.

There’s a paragraph in the Kickstarter pitch that particularly caught my eye: “Young people may decide that they would rather not take part in the film as they may be concerned about how their condition/illnesses might affect future employment or they might feel embarrassed about talking about an issue that still holds such a taboo.”

It caught me a little off guard. Here’s why.

In my late teens, following a bout of glandular fever, I had trouble getting back to my old self. It’s hard to explain why from the vantage point of a happy adulthood, but there it is as a permanent memory, and thankfully, hopefully long in the past.

But when it was taking place in the here and now, I felt lost and unable to make sense of all the things in my head. I went to my family doctor who decided I had depression. I don’t remember if he prescribed any medicine but he did send me for some counselling which I attended dutifully. Eventually, the fog began to lift and I stopped going. I’ve never needed to go back.

Fast forward thirty years and there, on the application form for my Australian permanent residency is what I refer to as a series of ‘have you ever…’ questions.

Snapshot of part of a medical questionnaire.

‘Have you ever…’ questions on the Australian visa medical questionnaire.

Have you ever suffered from mental health problems? Well yes and no. It didn’t feel like a mental illness but I know that you classify it as such, so I’m going to have to answer ‘yes’ here.

Once you answer yes to this, they delve a little deeper, and the questions are merciless, and by their very nature, intensely personal.

And then it begins. The feelings of shame at having succumbed to this thing, the feelings of anger that it is still a relevant question more than thirty years later. The feeling that it will never leave you, even if you fully recover, that you are to be viewed with suspicion such that it might even affect your ambitions in life, years, decades later.

Such stigma is rare and isolated to a few conditions – people living with HIV or hepatitis C encounter similar barriers I’m sure – but can you imagine it being applied wholesale to every condition you might ever develop in a lifetime? The situation is much the same when applying for any kind of insurance.

The fact that I’m here, in Canberra, shows that, actually, it had little or no bearing on my visa application, but I didn’t know that as I was filling out the form.

The point of all this is, were I able to speak to my teenage self; were he to ask me whether he should seek help or shoulder the burden alone, I don’t honestly think I could tell him that seeking help would be a good thing for him – that it would help, and that it would enable him to close a turbulent chapter for good. I’d have to measure my advice with the knowledge that reaching out to anyone would make this thing a permanent, never to be shaken, piece of baggage that he’d have to carry around for years, perhaps forever.

Which is why the Kickstarter project I mentioned earlier is such an important initiative. Young people are frightened, in some cases, frightened to death, by mental illness, often suppressing it for fear of the stigma and shame it can provoke. I know. And the story of the Germanwings flight just made this a whole lot worse in many quarters.

But I don’t think that the best way of responding to the situation is to drive people underground; to make them think reaching out for help will do more damage than good – that can only lead to more loss of life in the most tragic ways imaginable.

There’s still a lot to do before we make things better, but helping to fund a film that has understanding at its heart feels like a good contribution to make.

‘Careless’ by Catriona Taylor is open for funding until 20 April and is currently 60% funded.

4 thoughts on “Depression, stigma and Aussie visas

  1. Thanks for raising this – a great post. Having some diagnosed mental illness in my family, I’m very aware of that issue of diagnosis and fear of stigma. Like you, I am concerned about some of the calls in the aftermath of the Germanwings tragedy. I understand what’s behind it but how often has this happened? Can we identify multiple situations that we know this was a fact. Can we legislate against every possible permutation that might result in a one off or very rare event? I don’t think so. Rules about two people in the cockpit sound reasonable but going too far in terms of banning people with histories is a worry. And yet, given the loss in this event, and the suffering of those left behind, I feel cold-hearted saying it. Still, I hope if it happened to one of mine (if it happened to me I wouldn’t know!) I’d react with reason rather than emotion.

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    • I also think that we have to allow for the possibility of recovery and a return to wellness. To mark someone out ‘for life’ seems to be a sure way to prevent people who need help from coming forward, lest it should damage their reputation or life prospects at some later point. If our measures prevent help from reaching those who need it because they are too fearful of coming forward, then they must be, by definition, the wrong measures.

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