From time to time we like to hand over the keys to the kingdom to the big man, the top dog, the brains and beauty behind this here blog. The man that had an idea, an idea to ensure that all topics are covered, no matter how much they make us cringe. He didn’t want A Mind of Its Own to be just another travel blog or a blog that focused on the same topic week in week out. In fact the idea as outlined and detailed in previous posts was to spark interest and get people talking. No topic is safe or off limits and we’ll always try to give you an unbiased view, with both sides of the story portrayed so you can make your own decisions about things. When we do hand over the keys to the big man however you can be sure that he’ll give you a piece of this mind, body and soul about a topic that is close to his heart. So without further ado we’ll hand over the mic and crack into this week’s A Mind of It’s Own.
Have you ever looked into the mirror and told yourself this will get better, this too shall pass, you are not your depression and anxiety. These feelings do not define who you are! If, like me, you have experienced anxiety and depression on a daily basis, you will know that the empty husk of a human that is staring back at you often feels like a stranger. For many this is a constant battle faced day in, day out. I’d love to sit here and type out a blog about sunshine and rainbows but the fact of the matter is that we all have good days and bad days. The truth is that some people just have better days than most. It doesn’t mean their lives are better than yours or mine, they just may have never had to cope with the internal battle with themselves, the thoughts, feelings and often the numbness that comes along with battling mental health issues.
I cried this morning (The morning this was written, probably two weeks or so before you get to read this), for the first time in ages I shed a tear about what I thought at the time was nothing. I got angry at myself for crying, for allowing myself this moment of weakness after being strong for so long. I stood in front of the mirror preparing for another day on this beautiful earth, just like I do most days. Routine has become key to keep me from spiralling into that dark pit of negativity that crops up from time to time. There was no reason for the tears other than I was feeling overwhelmed. It was an overload of thoughts and feelings that caused me to shed a tear or two. Or perhaps it was the song playing in the background and the memories of a former friend and happier times. Perhaps it was a combination of it all but for now it’ll remain unexplored until I next see my psychologist.
Yes my psychologist. Why do I see a psychologist well that’s plain and simple, I needed help and still need help. I am a person who feels deeply but isn’t great at managing my feelings when I’m overloaded by them. I’d like to think I am empathetic to everyone but perhaps I am not. Perhaps I feel more than most people but one thing I know I do is take on everyone else’s problems. I often ponder why it is that I take on others pain, problems and play Bob the builder trying to fix things. Although unlike Bob the builder I often can’t fix things in other people’s lives and realise later on that they needed to do it themselves. Despite the fact I like knowing my friends and family are ok and everything is going smoothly. The truth is, it’s more likely that I take on the problems of others so that I don’t have to fix the things in my life that aren’t going well or are getting me down.
From here my thoughts flick to other people once again. Having been cooped up and having to work from home I’ve begun to wonder what effects COVID has had on others who like me suffer from anxiety and depression. Or perhaps not even those who battle mental health issues daily but rather those less fortunate than me who have sadly been affected by the changes brought about by COVID, those who have lost their jobs and in some cases their sense of being. It’s no secret that mental health in Australia and around the world is a major concern during uncertain times. That little bit I said about routine above, well I am not alone in needing routine to keep me grounded and level. A lot of people who suffer from anxiety and depression function so much better when they have a constant routine. We struggle when things throw our routine out of whack, and COVID has done just that. It has limited our interaction with others, taken away jobs, our day to day routines and morphed it into something often unrecognisable.
The indescribable feelings, thoughts and pressure heaped on those who have lost jobs, lost the ability to provide for their families and in some cases lost who they are altogether has led to an increase in suicides across the country. It’s a sad point to get to when you feel that you have no other options other than to take your own life. It’s an escape from it all and people will have their own opinions on suicide and those who have attempted to take their life or who have taken their life. I can honestly say I’ve never been suicidal. Frankly I’m too much of a pussy to take my own life but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had thoughts. Irrational thoughts about what it would be like to drive my car off a cliff or crash into another car. Would the airbags deploy? Would I survive, would the car flip? A visual play by play running through my head beginning, middle and end. But I always come back to the same point and that is the pain it would bring my family. The rock in my life, the one constant I’ll always have. The people who have always been there for me, no matter what. I just couldn’t ever put them through that.
But for some people the pain is way too much, they need to escape, to stop the hurt, to stop the voice inside their head. They feel alone and often like they have no other choice. Despite having friends and family who care about them they may feel that no one will care and feel that it will stop the pain. To most of us it’s incomprehensible to take your own life as we can rationalise the pain it would cause others. To those who have attempted to or have taken their own lives well the truth is we don’t know how they are feeling or what they are thinking. Perhaps they’ve seen things no one should ever have to see in their life. Maybe they’ve experienced great trauma whether it be pain in the way of physical and they want it to stop or emotional pain like that suffered by those who are bullied. The sad and confronting truth is that people commit suicide as they feel they are left with no other options than to end it all. Once it’s done, they won’t have to suffer anymore. These are just examples and each and every one of the beautiful souls who felt they had no other option had their own reasons and their own story.
As I began writing this blog I started looking into the statistics and wanted to dive a little deeper into the psyche of those who feel they have no other option than to take their own life. It was at this point I began getting a little frustrated. I saw an instagram post only days before I started writing this about the number of suicides in Australia since the beginning of COVID, the issue I had was that I couldn’t find any data backing up the statistics listed in the post I saw. Firstly, the statistics differ from website to website and a lot of them including the Australian Dept of Health website haven’t been updated since January 2014 and are still utilising data from 2010-2011. It goes to show that mental health and the tracking of the statistics surrounding it, including suicide, isn’t a priority of this government or previous ones. COVID has seen a spike in Suicides with the number sitting at around 1000 according to the statistics I could get which is 78 more people a day since March 1 than the numbers of people who have died from COVID. Again, the validity of these figures differs due to the way they are reported and not having one governing body that takes care of them or records them.
Although come to think of it we do have a government department that is tasked with keeping statistics and records on everything else, so I am pretty sure the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) could be tasked with keeping up to date statistics on all mental health related issues. The last two reports they conducted into Suicide where in 2010 and a report in trends from 1993 to 2003. It has recently been shown that we are still years away from real time suicide data. Professor Pat McGorry one of the nation’s prominent mental health advocates, said it was difficult to try to reduce the death rate, because suicide statistics come with a lag time of up to two years. He said this in a piece written in May this year by ABC Australia journalist Stephanie Dalzell, he also warned that we could see a spike in deaths by suicide due to economic and social impacts directly resulting from the corona virus pandemic.
While the Australian government has begun throwing money at what has been a highly dysfunctional mental health system that for years has required reforms and changes it comes off the back of the coronavirus pandemic which has led to many people including myself asking why it takes a pandemic for our government to finally look at changing the way mental health is viewed, assessed, funded and discussed. There is still a stigma surrounding mental health with many of our older generation still under the guise that it’s weak to speak. So without accurate data how can one believe the statistical models that are thrown to the public year after year? This was something that was on my mind as I dove deeper and deeper into my research. All the project figures show an increase, a jump, a rise and or a spike as the economy takes a hit and unemployment rises. There are now over 2.9 Million people who have received or are currently receiving Job Keeper payments from the Government. What is this going to mean for suicide rates and increases in mental health issues?
The sad truth is things are only going to get worse before they get better with our economy and social impacts of coronavirus. As Melbourne enters lock down for the second time for another 6 weeks with tighter restrictions and curfews, we can only begin to wonder how this will affect people. With some of Australia experiencing a second wave it’s only a matter of time before the entire country is impacted as this highly contagious virus jumps person to person. As the government throws money at the problems they can see immediately and support the short term, it isn’t addressing the long term problems or the big ticket items outlined in the National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan. This plan details 10 priorities, three enablers, seven principles and 75 actions. The only action to come out of this response plan so far is getting the states and territories to agree. There has been no implementation timetable or scale of investment agreed and zero urgency to make the key structural decisions or finance the key priorities.
Trying to put myself in the shoes of someone who has lost their job and has a family to support is hard. Whilst I have empathy, until you actually go through something like this yourself you will never be able to truly know what it’s like to, as they say, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. That hasn’t stopped me from wondering what tips a person from struggling but surviving to seeing no alternative than to take their own life. How they give up the battle after having fought for so long. What they went through to get them to that point and who was around them to help them out.. When I began writing this it was after what I’d deem as a bad morning for me, but this was just 1 morning, I can’t imagine what people go through who have to fight constantly and might not have access to support and help that I do.
In the research conducted into this topic I read several stories written by families, friends and even those who have committed suicide or attempted to commit suicide. In each of the stories I read there is a constant battle against depression, anxiety and other mental health issues and the will to live. In each case there was a strong correlation between self-harm and suicide. They were all normal people like you and me. They talked of a detachment from life, lack of feelings and often loneliness from the outside world and yet it was also a protection from things and people that could do them harm. They are exhausted from years of battling with themselves and through desperation seek out other relief whether it be alcohol, drugs, self-mutilation or something else it’s all together in an attempt to feel something or nothing at all. At some point though it all got too much and they just wanted to end the pain and suffering.
While the stories tell us of the pain, my analytical self wants and needs to understand what’s happening in the brain. What part of the brain is or isn’t firing, what’s happening with the receptors, is there an imbalance of chemicals? All these questions filter through my mind as fingers clack across the keyboard searching for the science behind why people take their own lives. Are there any commonalities happening in the brains of those who have suicidal thoughts? Sadly research is lacking into the science behind suicide but I did manage to find a study conducted by Canadian researchers that hinted to an abnormal distribution of receptors specifically for the chemical known as GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid). What’s GABA you ask? It’s the chemical messenger widely distributed throughout the brain. It’s main purpose is to bind to receptors and reduce the activity of those neurons.
The research conducted at the Robarts Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario by Michael Poulter and his colleagues found that one of the thousands of types of receptors for GABA was underrepresented in the frontopolar cortex of those with major depressive disorder who had committed suicide. The frontopolar cortex is involved in higher-order thinking, such as decision making. Whilst scientists don’t currently know how this abnormality leads to the type of major depression that makes someone suicidal, they do have theories around it due to the location in the brain. The premise is that any disruptions to that particular system within the brain would be predicted to have an important outcome.
The report went on to say that the GABA receptor problem was not the result of abnormal or mutated genes. The change rather was Epigenetic meaning some environmental influence affected how often the relevant genes were expressed, made into proteins. They also discovered that the brains of suicide victims often had receptors for GABA which had a molecule attached that would keep that gene hidden from cells’ protein-building machinery—in this case, preventing the cells from manufacturing GABA-A receptors. As I continued to read through the report the science started to make more and more sense but like most things it can change in the flick of a switch or a simple study. The more researchers look into the neurobiology behind suicide the more that will come to light.
There is still plenty of research to be done into suicide and its prevention as scientist try to identify potential biomarkers that may be early indicators, predictions of mental health issues or predisposition to mental health issues down the track. Year on year, the funding into research seems to climb but we still aren’t getting real time analytics or year by year figures. The data may be there, we (the public) just aren’t seeing it or being exposed to it. Could the figures really be that bad? We know suicide rates in the male population is four times higher than women, yet attempts is three times higher in women. Around the world each year on average 800,000 people commit suicide. A further breakdown of the available data would allow us to identify social impacts and pressures, especially those in minorities or disadvantaged groups.
As I read story after story of those who lived and found the courage to tell their tale in an attempt to help others, I began finding myself frustrated with the politics of it all. The government year on year is investing in mental health but it has become a multimillion dollar industry to the lobbyists and politicians. Whilst they continue to fund projects and make reforms on the surface are they actually listening to those who have been there before? Implementing and supporting on the ground projects? The internal politics and competing interests amongst academics, clinicians and researchers is almost just as bad as the politicians making the promises and seemingly throwing money at the problems. The big questions on everyone’s mind is ‘Are the suicide prevention programs actually working?’ Are the studies asking the right questions and when will we start to see data recorded in a way that it is able to be analysed and used to build real models and predictions?
As I close yet another A Mind of Its Own blog I am reminded that a simple conversation can save a life. So don’t be afraid to ask people, whether it be family, friends, coworkers or a complete stranger if they are ok? A simple conversation goes a lot further than you may think. Until the next instalment of Australia’s most underrated blog that’s actually factual unlike our funny friends over at Betoota who make us all laugh with their quirky, punchy yet often true headlines. I’ll leave you with some links below in case you or someone you know needs a little help or just needs to talk to someone. There is help out there and a lot of the not for profits go above and beyond to support the community. Remember it’s ok not to be ok but it certainly isn’t weak to speak. Peace Out and take care of yourselves.
The Big Bopper…