Cameron has lived with a schizophrenia diagnosis for 20 years, overcoming stigma was one of his biggest challenges


For many Australians who have complex mental health issues, it is not just their illness that can get in the way of engaging with work and friends, it is the discrimination they experience.Key points:A new National Stigma Report Card shows 70 per cent of people with complex mental health issues faced stigma in the last 12 monthsOn average, 72 per cent of participants said stigma they had experienced had discouraged them from socialising, making new friends or dating peopleSANE Australia says there is evidence economic crises increase stigma faced by people with complex mental health issuesCameron Solnordal was understandably worried when he first received his diagnosis of schizophrenia 20 years ago.At that point, he only knew about the illness from portrayals in television shows and news reports, which had reinforced stereotypes of criminality and violence.”I thought my life was over,” he said.”It wasn’t just fear, it was a resignation; it was, ‘Well that’s it. It’s the end.'”Twenty years after receiving that first diagnosis, Mr Solnordal is a photographer and writer who lives a very full life.”I have an amazing five-year-old son and that makes me proud,” he said.Getting the right treatment was a big part of Mr Solnordal having the life he has today, which he describes as painfully normal, but so was overcoming stigma.A new Stigma Report Card released today has revealed the level of stigma and discrimination faced by people living with complex mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, bipolar and personality disorders.It found that more than 70 per cent had experienced stigma and discrimination in the past 12 months.As a result, some people were reluctant to engage in work and social activities, while others felt so uncomfortable they were too scared to seek help.Survey finds stigma can discourage people from pursuing new relationshipsThe survey, which has been a joint project of SANE Australia’s Anne Deveson Research Centre and the University of Melbourne, surveyed people on employment, relationships and health care, housing, sport and the justice system.Director of the Anne Deveson Research Centre Michelle Blanchard said the research showed just how much of an impact stigma and discrimination had on people’s lives.”What comes through really clearly with this report is that people want to be treated with kindness and compassion and respect and I think that’s all that any of us want.”On average, 72 per cent of participants said stigma they experienced had discouraged them from socialising, making new friendships or dating people.Almost 60 per cent had endured stigma on social media either frequently or very frequently.Ninety per cent said they had seen, read or heard stories in the media that portrayed people living with mental health issues as dangerous, unpredictable and incapable of recovery. Cameron Solnordal said most of what he knew about complex mental health issues like schizophrenia had come from stereotypes in the media before receiving his diagnosis.(Supplied)Mr Solnordal said the community needed to see more positive stories about complex mental health issues.”Just seeing a person who goes in there and gets the medication and goes and looks after their family, who’s still working from home with a complex mental health issue, who’s still working every single day as a single parent or a stay-at-home parent with a complex mental health issue.””That to me is a very positive mental health story.”Economic crisis can make stigma worseMs Blanchard said what was needed was more education, understanding and acceptance.”We’re really calling on government to make a substantial long-term investment in a program of work to reduce stigma and discrimination,” she said.”We’ve certainly seen programs in reducing stigma around depression and anxiety — that has made a real difference.”SANE Australia chief executive Jack Heath said research showed half of Australians would experience some kind of mental illness in their lifetime.But during periods of uncertainty, such as the current pandemic, stigma can increase.”What we know is times like these, when we are very uncertain about the future, we tend to retreat to our own groups, retreat to tribes so we get a sense of belonging and commitment,” he said.”One of the things we know from when the GFC hit, from research that was done in Europe, is that in times of economic hardship, there was a lot of discrimination towards people living with a more complex mental health condition like bipolar and schizophrenia.”Mr Solnordal hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic will generate some empathy from the community towards those who have been socially isolated by mental illness for years.”All I would like now is for people who have never had to experience that type of isolation to just spend 10 seconds and understand now what it is like for a person with a complex mental health issue every day,” he said.”If people can see what it’s like to be stuck at home, to be disconnected from society, hopefully that will give a little bit of understanding of what people [with complex mental health issues] have been experiencing their whole lives.”

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