Generally speaking, many people feel uncomfortable with the topic of disability and mental illness. This is due to lack of education and exposure and for some, ignorance is bliss. It is so easy to disconnect ourselves from these larger problems when we do not see them. If we do see such an individual on say, public transport, we can then disconnect body language, eye contact, and proximity when we don’t understand what is happening around us. These coping mechanisms were likely bestowed upon us by our parents, who may have been ill-educated themselves.

While every situation and person is different, an easy way to start removing negative stigma and anti-social behaviour could be by engaging via eye-contact, offering a gentle smile or striking up a short conversation.

It is important to remember that mental illness can come from a myriad of places. This article talks about umbrella diagnosis specifically in schizophrenia and how this is problematic in approaching treatment. To summarise the article, the genesis of mental illness can come from a number of factors including trauma, substance abuse and sometimes genetics. This is actually applicable to many mental illnesses: ie. Depression, Multiple Personality Disorder, Bi-Polar Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to name a few.

Author Sam Harris reaches further into this, exploring the concept of Free Will (or lack thereof) and how some experiences unconsciously dictate our behaviour. It’s a pretty quick and articulate read at just 96 pages, FYI.

In any case, the individual living this reality did not choose it, and it’s possible that it could happen to any of us – circumstances allowing. So, don’t these people deserve kindness, understanding, and support as much as the rest of us on a bad day?

As it happens, my mother was diagnosed with a severe mental illness when I was a teenager and I am guilty of being the person whose natural reflex is to reject. Confused and quite scared, my first reaction was to disassociate with the symptoms. Through time and necessity, I got to know her again, learning about how her illness manifested itself through her personality. Here’s what I learnt:

Develop a trustworthy relationship with the individual.

Kindness and (an un-judgmental) listening ear can be hard to come by – be open in conversation and be careful not to dismiss them in any way. 

Engage in activities that you both enjoy.

A balance between comfort and familiarity – a walk in the park, a coffee at their local café, listening to music or watching their fav movie with them.

Sympathise and normalize.

If they choose to share the details of their reality with you, it is important that you recognize and validate them. They are living that narrative, and therefore it is real. Putting yourself in their shoes is the oldest saying in the book but it’s not as cliche as it sounds; legitimately think about how these people feel and maybe struggle on the daily – rejecting their ideas only pushes them further into themselves, and we are trying to connect not disconnect.

Education via online resources. 

Arts Access provides comprehensive resources list on their website including guides on talking about disability, factsheets, inclusive arts programs and governmental support.

Another great web series on ABC iView “You Can’t Ask That” speaks to groups of misunderstood, judged or marginalized Australians uncomfortable questions. This provides a lot of insight into the lives of all minorities and how we can be more kind and understanding of peoples situations.

Get involved in your local community.

A new initiative by Arts Access Victoria is one that seeks to bridge the gap. Bandmates links volunteer with people with disability and mental health issues, to go out to live music, through this removing stigmatism, building community connections and enhancing well-being through accessing arts and culture

You can get involved with this program here.

Keep yourself in check too. 

There are heaps of resources out there for you to help yourself too! If you are feeling like you need to talk to someone there’s a bunch of hotline services such as Lifeline (13 11 14) and Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) that you can call.

Therapists are the best! In Australia, Medicare subsidizes up to 10 sessions every year. All you need to do is make an with your doctor for a referral and a Mental Health Care Plan.

There are also these free downloadable worksheets you can work through here for those a little better versed in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.