Not Waving, Drowning: Mental Illness and Vulnerability in Australia – Sarah Krasnostein

Quarterly Essay #85

Mental illness is so prevalent that it’s likely either you or someone you love will have lived experience. If it hasn’t impacted you personally, it probably means that it hasn’t yet, not that it won’t. 

Almost half of all Australian adults will experience mental ill-health during their lives, and almost one in five will meet the criteria in a given year. These numbers have likely risen during the pandemic. 

In this essay, Sarah Krasnostein traces the way mental illness has been managed (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, poorly managed) over time in Australia. They outline the trauma experienced by convicts and the “increasingly lethal, state-sanctioned attempt to eradicate Aboriginal people” (a minimum of 270 massacres over 140 years, beginning in 1794!!) before exploring our asylum days, beginning with Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum, Australia’s first purpose built psychiatric facility. 

Krasnostein evaluates our current system, where money buys you care if you’re cis, heterosexual and white, while pretty much everyone else has to fight for the scraps, if they can find any. 

What is known as “the mental health system,” for example, is really just billions of human interactions. And that is where the problems lie. 

We go down the rabbit hole of how people with mental illness are marginalised, looking at the failure of individuals, institutions and society at large. I grew weary hearing about the cascade of inquiries into the mental health system that consistently result in recommendation after recommendation that are not acted on.

We can memorise the stats and read the policies but what really stays with me are peoples’ lived experiences. You can intellectually know that people with mental illness disproportionately experience homelessness and that the ‘service gaps’ are really service chasms, but that doesn’t tell you the whole story. 

Being introduced to Rebecca, who despite being found not fit to stand trial and not guilty because of mental impairment, was imprisoned and kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day simply because there was nowhere else for her to go? Her story is going to stay with me. So is Daylia’s, a woman with a history of setting fires in order to try to gain control over her life.

The story of lived experience that stood above all others for me, though, was that of Eliza. A young woman who has survived extensive childhood trauma and is living with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, Eliza is now a peer worker, working to reform a system that in many ways has failed her. To say that I am impressed by her resilience and courage is an understatement. We need to be listening more to people like Eliza.

Quote I loved whose context I can’t remember but would be appropriate in so many situations

absence of evidence is not evidence of absence 

From the ‘I bet whoever approved this name didn’t give it a lot of thought’ files

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare have spreadsheets collating cause of death called General Record of Incidence of Mortality (GRIM). 

Because there is no systems change without relational change – and no relational change without personal change – perhaps our best hope lies in a critical mass of those who are privileged by the current economic and social model following the lead of those people with lived experience and making the radical choice to normalise their own vulnerabilities – not just by refusing to participate in the stigmatisation of mental illness, but by calling out Othering in all its pernicious forms. 

There were a couple of quotes from the Correspondence section about Jess Hill’s The Reckoning that I wanted to make note of: 

Adrienne Rich wrote that when a woman tells the truth, she creates “the possibility for more truth around her.” 

Hannah Ryan & Gina Rushton

Silence and withdrawal by the many is what enables crimes by the few. 

Malcolm Knox

Content warnings include alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, domestic abuse, drug addiction, eating disorders, homophobia, mental health, physical abuse, racism, self harm and sexual assault.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Mental illness is the great isolator – and the great unifier. Almost half of us will suffer from it at some point in our lives; it affects everybody in one way or another. Yet today Australia’s mental health system is under stress and not fit for purpose, and the pandemic is only making things worse. What is to be done?

In this brilliant mix of portraiture and analysis, Sarah Krasnostein tells the stories of three women and their treatment by the state while at their most unwell. What do their experiences tell us about the likelihood of institutional and cultural change? Krasnostein argues that we live in a society that often punishes vulnerability, but shows we have the resources to mend a broken system. But do we have the will to do so, or must the patterns of the past persist into the future?

“In our conception of government, and our willingness to fund it, we are closer to the Nordic countries than to America. However, we’re trending towards the latter with a new story of Australia. The moral of this new story is freedom over equality, and one freedom above all – the freedom to be unbothered by others’ needs. However, as we continue to saw ourselves off our perch, mental health might be the great unifier that climate change and the pandemic aren’t.” —Sarah Krasnostein, Not Waving, Drowning

The Reckoning: How #MeToo is Changing Australia – Jess Hill

Quarterly Essay #84

Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do is one of the best books I’ve ever read about domestic abuse. I was keen to see how she’d tackle #MeToo and have been impatiently waiting for my library’s copies to arrive so I could dive in. 

This essay traces #MeToo from its origins (before it became a hashtag), with a particular focus on how it has played out across Australia’s cultural landscape since 2017. There are examples from the media, education, politics and the legal system, all of which I’d followed in real time but which felt more overwhelming when they were explored one after the other. I don’t know that Australia’s celebrated mateship has ever felt so toxic to me.

There have been battles undertaken in courts, the media and public opinion. We’ve learned just how brutal Australia’s defamation laws are. There are powerful people abusing their power and systems supporting them in their endeavours.

Don’t get me wrong; there have been positives, like #LetHerSpeak. Conversations have taken place that were once considered taboo and there are more people visibly working towards implementing changes to legislation, processes and policies. There are survivors turned advocates who are transforming the way we think about consent and grooming, and their voices have led to others finding their own. Good things are happening.

So, why do I still feel so angry having read this essay? 

Maybe it’s about reporting a sexual assault to the police in 2017 and getting my hopes up about the positive impact #MeToo would have on the way my report was treated. Then being told that there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges and subsequently learning that the investigation consisted solely of the detective phoning my psychologist to ask if I had a mental illness that would cause me to fabricate the sexual assault.

Maybe it’s about something a detective said to me a few months ago when they were trying their darnedest to dissuade me from formally reporting a series of sexual assaults (different detective, different perpetrator). No one ever gets a good outcome, they told me. Even if there is a conviction, and that’s a big if, it’s never going to be enough and what you’d have to go through to get it wouldn’t be worth it.

They talked about the things I would have seen in media (like some of the cases I read about here) and noted that they are the minority, and that I shouldn’t align my expectations with those outcomes. Even when someone reports a rape the same day and there’s physical evidence and CCTV footage, it’s almost impossible to get a conviction.They said they were telling me all of this to help me.

This is the same man who helpfully told me that my having a mental illness would be used against me because it would speak to both my credibility and character. ‘You mean the PTSD I have as a result of the sexual assaults I’d be reporting?’ The very same. Huh.

As I read this essay I wondered if the detective was right, that there’s no point in reporting. But you know what? It’s attitudes like this that contribute to silence, the antithesis of #MeToo. 

[And besides, this is the same police force whose representatives roll their eyes and pull faces at women who are reporting AVO breaches, who say that behaviour that clearly constitute breaches (written in black and white on the AVO) are in fact not breaches at all. Who write down what you say and then neglect to put it in their system so there’s no record you ever made a report. Who you have to insist write it down in the first place and give you an event number because, even though they think you’re overreacting, they don’t understand what this person’s capable of or how they may escalate.]

I’m mad because I read something like this essay and I get hopeful, but then think about all of the peoples’ experiences it doesn’t encapsulate because only some voices are heard. I want change for all of us, not just the lucky few who, let’s face it, probably shouldn’t be called lucky at all. Because they experienced what they did in the first place. Because even if they did get an outcome that looks like a win, it came at a great cost. Because being an advocate continues to cost.

In lesser hands, this essay could have been an absolute mess, but it’s not. At all. It is well written and clearly involved extensive research but, to be honest, I’d expect nothing less from Jess’ work.

It was a compulsive read. I gained even more respect and admiration for the survivors who tell their story publicly. The powers that be, political and otherwise, lost what little faith I still had in them, not that there was much to lose. I want everyone to read this essay and I want to read it again to pick up on anything I missed when I rushed through it the first time.

So, where do I currently stand on #MeToo? Despite my own experiences, I’m stubbornly hopeful. The systems still fail survivors but more and more of us are demanding change, and we’re done being silenced.

Content warnings include death by suicide (including the method used), domestic abuse, mental health and sexual assault.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In 2021, Australia saw rage and revelation, as #MeToo powered an insurgency against sexism and sexual violence. From once isolated survivors to political staffers, women everywhere were refusing to keep men’s secrets. 

In this electrifying essay, Jess Hill traces the conditions that gave birth to #MeToo and tells the stories of women who – often at great personal cost – found themselves at the centre of this movement. Hill exposes the networks of backlash against them – in government, media, schools, and in our national psyche. This is a powerful essay about shame, secrecy and, most of all, a revolutionary movement for accountability.