Why Mental Health Should Be A Dinner-Table Conversation

Or better still -- an anytime conversation.

It’s Saturday night and my girlfriends and I are getting ready for a big one. And by that I mean a delicious homemade dinner, a few glasses of vino and a good ol' chat.

Up for discussion is the usual: work, sex, gluten intolerance -- yes it is a thing -- that hot guy from that new Netflix show, relationships and weird boob lumps. Yep, it gets pretty intimate.

I’ve been lucky to know these incredible women since high school and, in recent years, one topic has popped up more and more: mental health.

From job stress and general health worries -- those weird boob lumps will do that -- to periods of unidentifiable and inexplicable sadness, we put everything on the table. And we’re not the only ones with mental health on our minds.

Four million Aussies reported having a mental or behavioural condition, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s National Health Survey of 2014-15. The most frequently reported conditions were anxiety related (11.2 percent) followed by mood disorders such as depression (9.3 percent).

These conditions -- anxiety, depression and panic attacks as well -- are not only common but on the rise in Australia, according to data from the April 2018 Medibank Better Health Index.

Image: Medibank Better Health Index.

But what about young people in particular?

Physically, we’re healthier than ever. Millennials are not only less inclined to indulge in fast food and sugary treats but we’re also consuming a lot less alcohol than our parents’ generation. Take that, Mum and Dad.

Smoking rates have also dropped significantly, with only 13 percent of millennials lighting up these days. And that’s great news. Sure, our clean-eating, gym-junkie lives have us looking good. But all those push-ups and pressed juices aren’t doing much to care for our mental health.

You might look great, but do you FEEL great? Image: Getty.

Just over 1.7 million young adults aged 18 to 34 years are living with one or more mental health conditions, according to the April 2017 Medibank Better Health Index. That's an all-time high.

Let's unpack that stat a bit. The number of young people suffering from depression increased by 18 percent between 2007-08 and 2015-16. The incidence of anxiety and panic attacks have both doubled over the past nine years. It's not exactly great news.

What is great is that more and more people -- like me and my group of girlfriends -- are having open, honest discussions about mental health issues. It's a trend that headspace CEO Jason Threthowan welcomes.

"The more that people are aware of mental health issues, the more likely it is that they will recognise something in themselves, or someone close to them," Trethowan told ten daily. And that is a good thing.

Psychologist Clare Mann has witnessed the positive effects of open discussion about mental health. And it can all start with just one person -- you.

"It only takes one or two people to be honest and lead the way and then others come on board," she told ten daily.

So how did we start talking about what was once a no-go topic? Trethowan credits several factors. Organisations like headspace do much to dispel the negativity attached to mental health. Positive and well-informed coverage in the media also opens up opportunities for discussion.

Celebrities and high profile people can also play a role. When a public figure comes out and talks about their struggles it starts a helpful conversation. "It gives people permission to say 'it's okay to talk about this. I'm not going crazy, I'm not weak'," Mann said.

Women are more willing to talk about these issues, says Mann. Which is a positive thing because it’s women who are suffering most. The ABS National Health Survey reports that mental and behavioural conditions are more common among women than men –- that’s 19.2 percent compared with 15.8 percent respectively.

Women are more likely to suffer from depression, stress and sleep disorders, and twice as likely to suffer from anxiety. No wonder my gal pals and I have a lot to talk about.

Regardless of gender, Trethowan wants us to remember that all young people still face issues seeking help even though mental health is less of a taboo topic. And that's understandable. As Mann explained, "nobody -- young or old -- wants to open up and be vulnerable with people they don't trust or who could throw it back in their face."

So what can we -- as individuals and as a community -- do next? Whatever it is it needs to happen quickly. "Something has to be done because people are falling over," warned Mann. "People are absent from work or leaving work altogether and relationships are breaking down."

Mann wants to see more responsibility placed on professionals --psychologists, counselors, doctors and people in workplace management positions -- to give people permission to have these conversations. Normalising mental health struggles, she said, is the key. 

On a day-to-day level, Mann said that the most important thing we can all do is to keep talking. And it doesn't have to be all about mental health all the time. "Any dialogue is good," she urged.

Now that's something we can all get our heads around.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

Feature image: Getty.