In the mid 90s, Keith Mahar was the target of a smear campaign while pursuing an investigation into questionable activities by corporations and Canada’s broadcasting regulator. While his efforts resulted in questions to the prime minister in parliament, and a precedent-setting legal case, he publicly experienced a severe psychotic episode that destroyed his reputation and interrupted his role as a political activist for a decade.
Today, Mahar is based in Canberra as a social worker, mental health advocate and political activist. Amongst other things, he has shared his personal story experience of mental illness and recovery with audiences for over a decade as a volunteer educator with Mental Illness Education ACT. At the ANU, he recently addressed guests and residents of Burgmann College on September 1 and is planning a discussion with residents of St Johns XXI on October 7.
Mahar’s presentations provide insight into personal experiences of mental health issues and draw attention to the damage that is caused by stigma.
Speaking with Woroni, Mahar expressed that he once felt “completely ashamed” for having a mental health issue.
“I thought nothing was ever going to get better”.
Yet, things did improve for Mahar: “as soon as you know that depression is breaking, it is such a relief”.
The important, gradual realization that “the symptoms of hopelessness are a symptom of depression, not a predictor of one’s future” meant that he was able to distinguish and recognise “delusions of depression and false feelings of hopelessness” and start taking small steps towards rebuilding the type of life that he wanted.
“Over time I recognised that the key for me [to maintain] my mental health…was to have a longer term vision for my future and be able to notice early warning signs of mental illness in order to take effective steps to avoid relapse”.
Mahar encourages students to adopt proactive approaches to maintaining their mental health. “People go to the gym to stay healthy for their physical fitness, why don’t they get into meditation or relaxation therapy for their own mental health? Its about trying get on the front foot and not waiting for something to happen.”
When asked about the need to eradicate damaging stigma, Mahar lists labels and language as major barriers to a person’s recovery. Arguably, bigoted and disparaging terms that refer to psychotic illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are more prevalent than ever due to depictions in the media; even despite an increased awareness and acceptance of issues like depression and anxiety.
Indeed, Mahar recently challenged the comments made by journalist Joe Hildebrand on ‘The Drum’ which compared fringe voters to “crazy people” who should be ignored, as should a “schizophrenic vote”. His submission to the Commonwealth Ombudsman is ongoing, but he is hoping to test “where we draw the line” in terms of discriminating against mental health issues.
Media emphasis on negative stories regaling cases of psychotic illness also perpetuate stigma. “[These stories] are not counter balanced by enough education, enough positive stories.”
“Millions of people coping with a mental illness and recovering in the world doesn’t make the news” in the same way that sensationalised stories do, comments Mahar. He emphasises the importance of contextualizing stories of mental illness with positive achievements and stories of resilience, recovery and progress.
“Talking with people and explaining one’s personal experience in balanced way is one way to reduce stigma with young people”.
Keith Mahar urges students to go to a doctor if experiencing mental health problems, and to also be aware of online e-Health resources, like Mood Gym and E Couch (initiatives designed and developed by staff at the National Institute for Mental Health Research at the ANU).
Photo courtesy of http://www.keithmahar.com/