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Mental illness in young people: Stamping out the stigma

Mental illness in young people: Stamping out the stigma

A look at mental health advocacy in the Commonwealth

Global suicide rates are harrowing, especially among young people, but some young leaders are determined no one should suffer in silence. Ankita Bellary talked to two of them – in India and Australia – to find out about their work.  

Last year in Australia, an average of 8.3 people committed suicide every day.  The year before that, in India, 15 people committed suicide every hour.

Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people after road-traffic accidents. Over the years, changing attitudes towards, and laws covering suicide have meant more support for people suffering from mental illness.

But only about 50% of people with depression ever receive treatment, and only 40% receive treatment that is seen as “minimally adequate”. And that’s for countries with many resources. Low-income countries are often far worse off.                                                  

Mental health in India

Shivani Mathur Gaiha has worked in mental health advocacy for years and tells me about the myths and gaps of knowledge that exist in the area of mental health in India.

India has the world’s largest population of people aged between ten and 24 years. It is a country where 70% to 80% of mental health problems go untreated.

“In India, suicide is the number one cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds," says Shivani, "and depression and inability to communicate one’s pain and feelings are closely linked to suicide.”

Shivani has discovered that “people with mental health problems do not want to be found. They suffer and they hide."

Painted sign saying "stigma"

She adds that thinking about these people is what drives her. "These images in my mind are my motivation. Every day, they beg me to support conversations around mental health.” 

In Shivani's eyes, the basic needs of many young Indians are not being met. They are lonely, stressed and struggling to keep pace in a highly stressful, future-oriented environment.

“They’re also dealing lack awareness of mental health problems,” she says, and “they turn to friends and family who are at equal odds.” 

Changes in the law

There has been some good news however. Recently a mental health bill was passed in the lower house of the Indian Parliament, which encompassed:

  • decriminalising suicide
  • the right to access public healthcare
  • equality of treatment 
  • and protection from inhuman and degrading treatment.

“This is major. I would attribute this recognition from parliament to tireless efforts of mental health activists, NGOs and persons living with mental health problems across decades,” Shivani says. “The next step is to ensure that 'talk' gets delivered.”

Australia

Across the oceans, suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA+) Australians are 14 times more likely to take their own lives than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Australia, despite being seen an inclusive country, isn’t always so.

“Homophobia, transphobia, and intersexphobia are rife,” says Jacob Thomas, a human rights advocate, LGBTQIA+ activist and education project officer.

“It's understandable why our mental wellness is not as strong as that of the rest of the broader community,” says Jacob, citing debates about marriage equality, people feeling unsafe to self-identify at work, funding cuts to safe schools and non-consensual surgeries being performed on intersex people.

“My work primarily focuses on reducing the rate at which LGBTQIA+ youth attempt and complete suicide,” adds Jacob, and explains that this means creating “more knowledgeable and safer spaces for young LGBTQIA+ people to access healthcare in Australia.”

Jacob Thomas

For Jacob, whilst there are great initiatives across Australia to help struggling individuals, funding and accessibility to rural and regional areas are big problems. As are societal attitudes towards LGBTQIA+ people.

“As a community, we are still seen as lesser and are often told that the suicide epidemic is our own problem to deal with.”

Jacob believes the situation can be improved, “but it's going to take a lot of resource and effort.”

Getting involved

I ask Jacob and Shivani for advice for young people wanting to get involved in mental health advocacy.

“It's hard. It just is. I'm often exhausted and need to take a lot of time to focus on my own self-care…you can’t fill from an empty cup,” Jacob says.

“What motivates me is my experiences with ill mental health and sucidality. Knowing that immense desire to no longer be here – and not wanting anyone else to feel that they are unworthy of being loved and celebrated as they are – that gets me out of bed everyday.”

Shivani tells me that people should step up, get involved and stamp out the stigma.

“Young people are not indifferent or apathetic. They just need to understand what is being talked about. It's up to us to collectively bring mental health – or talking about health – out of the shadows.”