Face to face with mental illness

Haathi in the Room
Natasha Herbert

Haathi in the Room aims to open discussions on the challenges within South Asian communities in Australia

Mental illness is a burning topic that needs to be taken off the taboo list, acknowledged and dealt with head-on. And that’s precisely what the ‘Haathi in the Room’ tea workshop did—it addressed the ‘elephant in the room’.

Synonymous with the metaphorical English idiom of an elephant in the room, Haathi in the Room, held on Saturday, 1 April, opened discussions on the inherent challenges and issues within the South Asian communities in Australia.The issue of mental health is not unique to any one geographical region but encompasses the globe today. The World Health Organisation estimates that depression will be the number one health concern in both the developing and developed nations by 2030.

In Australia, it is estimated that 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, and that 1 in 5 people have mental illness in any given year. These staggering statistics can paralyse a person, family or community. The most common mental illness in Australia is depressive anxiety and substance use disorders which can often co-occur. The astounding fact is that mental illness is most prevalent amongst youth aged 18-24 years.

Antonietta Natoli, a natural practitioner and Laughter Yoga instructor enlightened the participants on how stimulated laughter has the same physical and psychological benefits as genuine spontaneous laughter. She invited everyone to join her in the rhythmic ‘ho ho ha ha ha’ chanting with laughter. First-timers never having walked this jocular path before were initially reluctant to go with the flow. Very soon the happy hormone trio of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin did the job of lifting everyone’s mood and the attendees were in peals of laughter. Some enthusiastic participants faced strangers on the street and invited them to join the happy-clappy group.

Haathi in the Room

Guest speaker, clinical psychologist Natasha Herbert eloquently educated the participants on types of mental illness and made them familiar with the warning signs should a loved one be touched by mental health issues. “Mental health encompasses one’s emotional, psychological and social well being and relates to one’s ability to handle stress. Illness impairs a person’s day-to-day thinking, mood and behaviour and consequently any distress impacts relationships and performance,” she said.

The alarming fact that worldwide Indian women have higher rates of suicide than women of other nationalities drew a few gasps from the audience. In the South Asian context, mental illness is often linked with shame or denial. Women are far less likely to seek psychological care but seek traditional support from family, friends or religious groups. This often presents itself with physical complaints such as headaches and stomach pains. Many migrants arrive in Australia with good mental health which may deteriorate after the first 12 months. This is linked to stressful process of acculturation, language and social barrier and difficulties in finding employment.

The next speaker from Beyond Blue, Monica Das, spoke unfettered. Her bold admissions were humbling. When she said she was a victim of mental illness, if there was a mist in the room, it evaporated quickly. The discussion had begun and we were looking at a young girl who came out the other side with her health, mind and body intact. The acceptance of her problem paved the way for her recovery. Help was at hand and she grabbed it. The fact that 54 per cent of people with mental illness do not access any treatment is jaw dropping. Is it ignorance or lack of empathy that leads people down this dark alley?

Suicidal disorder claims the lives of 6 Australians every day. The shocking fact is that 30 people will attempt suicide every day. Suicide is the leading cause of death of Australians aged 25-44 years and the second leading cause of death for youth aged 15-24 years. These statistics are mind boggling and hard to digest. Young innocent lives are sacrificed and all that is left is the hollow shell of loved ones agonising over what they could have done to save these precious life.

The workshop enabled different groups to talk to each other and present thoughts that were valuable. The cause and effect of the problem was discussed. The takeaway from the workshop was that we are our keepers of our health and need to look after ourselves and our near and dear ones. Listening, being neutral and non-judgemental in conversations shows support to the ones that are suffering and opens up the lines of communication. Organisations like Beyond Blue, Black Dog, Butterfly or White Ribbon are doing ground breaking work in this field and their services should be used if the situation demands.

Mental health issues are to be taken seriously. The genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. Discussions have commenced in our community as the ‘haathi’ can no longer be ignored. Organisers Sue Advani and her formidable committee of Nitasha Bhatia, Vidhisha Khetwani, Megha Agarwal and Monica Das did a stellar job of starting this conversation. Let us keep it alive.

Haathi in the Room

What are the indicators of mental health issues?

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and unusual activities
  • Having low or no energy
  • Feeling numb or nothing matters
  • Having unexplained aches and pains
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Smoking, drinking or using drugs
  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried or scared
  • Yelling or fighting with family and friends
  • Experiencing severe mood swings
  • Having persistent thoughts or memories you cannot get out of your head
  • Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
  • Thinking of harming yourself or others
  • Inability to perform daily task like taking care of your kids or getting to work or school

Emergency Contacts: Lifeline Australia 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, MensLine Australia 1 300 78 99 78, Suicide Call Back Service 1 300 659 467, Ambulance 000


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