Prof Allan Fels says Mental Heath Kit can reduce stigma

Andy Calder, Michele Mercer and Allan Fels at the Mental Health Kit launch.

Churches can play a vital role combatting the stigma that still surrounds mental illness even among medical professionals, according to leading mental health public policy expert and advocate Professor Allan Fels.

Speaking at the launch of a Mental Health Kit for Uniting Church congregations, Prof Fels said the kit rightly highlighted the degree of stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness suffered.

“Although we think of stigma as being that of ignorant members of the public, the fact is that there is stigma and discrimination even on the part of the most educated and informed people in society, including health and mental health professionals,” Prof Fels told the launch gathering at Brunswick Uniting Church on 15 September.

“There’s evidence that doctors treat a person in a slightly different manner if they are known to be mentally ill. For example, if I complain about a sore back, it is taken seriously, but if a person with mental illness does, it is often assumed that the problem is mental illness rather than the sore back.”

The kit, prepared by Synod Disability Inclusion Advocate Rev Andy Calder, aims to inform congregations about mental illness and help them be more welcoming and inclusive of those with conditions.

Prof Fels said the solution to this widespread and entrenched stigma rested with examples set by smaller groups, such as churches, rather than highly funded campaigns.

“We need to work at the level of individuals and individual groups within the community,” he said.

“For example, we need church groups and parishes to do things that help remove stigma. Not only does that work well in a parish, but its effects can spread more widely through friends and neighbours.”

In looking at the bigger policy picture, Prof Fels said mental health, along with Indigenous health, were the two “standout failures of the health system”.

He said mental health illness comprised 13 per cent of disability yet only received eight per cent of the national health budget.

“Mental health needs to be much higher priority on the part of politicians and the community,” Prof Fels said.

Prof Fels, who is perhaps best known as the former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has become a prominent in the national discussion around mental health.

He is one of the commissioners on the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, a previous Chair of the National Mental Health Commission and has talked openly about his daughter’s struggle with schizophrenia.

The launch also heard a personal perspective on mental health struggles from Michele Mercer, who is a regular participant at Boroondara Community Outreach run by the Presbytery of Yarra Yarra.

If you would like to know more about the Mental Health Kit contact Rev Andy Calder on (03) 9251 5489 or email  andy.calder@victas.uca.org.au.

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