At the Wellways Advocacy Forum held in Launceston recently, attendees looked at various issues that needed advocacy in the community, such as stigma and isolation, and brainstormed practical steps forward to help overcome these problems.

Stigma and isolation are related, as others may label and exclude those who have had, or are suffering from, a mental illness, which can lead to isolation for the people involved. People may also self-isolate and self-stigmatise. In turn, isolation and stigma may exacerbate that person’s mental health issues.

I have lived on my own without any significant natural supports for more than 20 years.  This has created difficulty in managing work, medical, recreational and neighbourhood situations.  It was compounded by lack of understanding by others about my situations, including when I had episodes of illness, mostly brought on by external stresses.  I was often labelled inappropriately and inaccurately, which caused considerable anxiety and distress, and led to me isolating myself from others even further.

I ended up very isolated interstate, with my closest friendship being only a very occasional meeting.  I lived in very stressful housing situations for more than 10 years, and this impacted on my work, safety, health and relationships, to the degree that I was advised by authorities to move out of my last accommodation altogether.  It would have been very helpful if I had received more positive support and understanding from those I reached out to at the time.  I was always, and still am, in the position of having to represent myself.

What has helped in recent years has been more positive support from peers and workers in mental health organisations, which I did not have for most of my time interstate.  It is still difficult to have to travel quite a distance to meet up with others, and have a very isolated home life.  It would help enormously to have closer relationships with others who are more sensitive, understanding, non-judgemental, positive and supportive about my health and life situation. What does help is having a safer neighbourhood, a strong spirituality, finding ways to contribute to the community—such as in suitable volunteer work and other work—and engaging in recreational and creative pursuits and journaling. This creates a sense of hope and fulfilment in my life.

There are ways in which the kind of stigma and isolation which I have suffered from can be tackled.  This includes education at all levels, change of language, and public and self-advocacy, such as in social and other media, which may lead others to see that anyone of any age or gender can suffer from a mental illness and isolation.  A mental illness could be treated in the same way as a physical illness, and could be seen and spoken of as another aspect of general health. This helps take away the stigma of having had an episode of mental illness, and normalises the person and their health, in their own situation.

There needs to be an overall community attitudinal shift, and practical widespread measures can be effective in this regard.

Lisa Coppe
Peer educator contractor