Recently I made quite an unusual journey. It was in a time machine - but one with a bit of difference. Instead of moving forwards or backwards in time it moved sideways - into a parallel universe - into a parallel Australia. And I’m dying to tell you what I found. I couldn’t believe it.
I was there for several months - observing intently. I lived with a reasonably well off family, I read their papers, watched their TV, used their Internet and listened to their talk back radio. I travelled widely across the whole state, and I walked hundreds of kilometres, just so I could see and understand as much of their life as I could.
The strongest impressions I got were those of vibrancy, involvement and participation. They seemed less stressed and they acted as if they had real control over what they were doing. They even seemed to laugh more than we do. Amazingly everyone seemed to be included. Children were obviously special. Not spoilt but special.
Their media didn’t seem any less interesting than ours - a lot of tension and disagreement but they seemed to handle it differently from the way we do. And I watched their parliament, live and on TV - and this bit I just could not believe. They were really debating the issues. Some of the parliamentarians turned puce with passion in their speeches, but they didn’t seem to be hurling insults at each other or constantly trying to put each other down.
So I asked my hosts about bullying in school and in workplaces - they said it exists, but they had taken it really seriously and it become much less of a problem.
I asked about domestic violence and they said it’s a major cause of anxiety and depression in women but it had reduced a lot over the past 20 years, and this had had enormous positive benefits for children.
They said that overall they had very low levels of depression and anxiety. And they had the data to show me. Their annual surveys conducted in each local government area across the country showed impressive declines of self-reported anxiety and depression, in addition to increases in those seeking treatment. They still had significant levels of other mental illness.
They gave me reports to look at - one of which showed that mental health was worse in those who were socially and economically worse off. But at the same time they showed that these disparities had decreased through their progressive tax and social policy. And in my travels it did appear that there were fewer “depressed” suburbs in this parallel Australia.
Is this parallel Australia credible? What does the science tell us and what might have just been my fanciful imagination?
It seems that anyway you look at it, discrimination and violence for any reason makes people miserable. Let’s start with the common or garden variety of discrimination that happens in our school and workplaces, even on our sporting fields - bullying. A study in Melbourne has shown that up to 30 per cent of depressive symptoms in high school children is due to victimisation or bullying at school. Studies in Australia and elsewhere show a very common link between bullying and depression, fatigue, and sleep disorders. In one study over half also said their relationship with partner or family had worsened because of the bullying.
Discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, body shape, age and social class is consistently associated with lower levels of well being, self esteem, control and mastery and higher levels of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders.
Physical, verbal, psychological or sexual violence against women has shown in landmark study to be the greatest cause of preventable physical and mental ill health in 15-45-year-old women. And it might not being doing the mental health of the male perpetrators much good either.To marginalise, alienate and isolate people are other very effective methods of making them mentally unhealthy, let alone physically unhealthy. Studies consistently show that those who are socially isolated are two to five times the risk of dying from all causes compared to those who maintain strong ties with family, friends and community.
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