Ed#468: Seize the Day

26 September 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#468: Seize the Day

It wasn’t long after the death of Robin Williams early in August that I got a request from a vendor: could we put him on the cover? We were then into the final production stages of our annual fiction edition, which didn’t allow for eleventh-hour changes. After that, well, all the stories about, and tributes to, the talented but tormented American performer had come and gone.

Then came one more request from a vendor in a different state. And another. Were we doing anything about Williams? The comedian and actor had obviously struck a chord with several of our own people. It was around this time that I saw the back cover of our fiction edition, which we called ‘Take Me Away’. This was something I’d been carrying around and talking about for weeks. Yet I hadn’t paid much attention to the back. Sometimes, things can be right in front of you and still you don’t notice. It was a Lifeline ad with the headline: 7 Australians die by suicide every day. Then I remembered other things I’d put aside on my desk, waiting for the time to be right. Two books by Kate Richards, recounting her own experience of mental illness. Several personal stories tackling the same topic. In all of these, suicide was discussed. And then I knew: Williams’s life and death would enable us to address a topic that for too long was kept shut away in a box labelled ‘Too Hard’.

We have tackled the subject before: in 2008 (Ed#299), with a cover story called ‘All in the Mind’. Then, in 2012 (Ed#404), we released ‘Star Woes’ – featuring Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and stories explaining how public discussion of mental illness by public figures like Fisher and Stephen Fry, and its part in their own creativity, had also helped push the subject out of the shadows. But it is wrong to glamorise or romanticise mental illness, which, I would guess, is something that has affected almost everyone in the Big Issue community. Early this year we received a striking contribution from a woman named Lisa May. It began: “I have bipolar disorder. It’s not my fault I have it and it is no reflection on who I am as a person. Yet people invariably hold it against me. And it is a HORRIBLE disorder to have to live with. Not many people seem to feel sorry for me, or what I go through, as a result of having a mental illness... It would be good if we could have more public-awareness campaigns about mental illnesses in Australia, so that the general public can learn [to have] a little more empathy for us... It would be nice if people didn’t hold our mental illnesses against us – the illnesses are punishing enough and psychiatric wards are NOT fun places. I hope it is sooner rather than later that Australians address their attitudes to people with mental illnesses as I, like other people with a mental illness, would like a normal life and career.”

She also made the point that many people with a mental illness are homeless. Her call for understanding and compassion should be heeded, especially at a time when people with mental illnesses could be adversely affected by proposed ‘reforms’ to disability support pensions. At a time when, as Kate Richards writes, “suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 34”. It is coincidence, rather than clever planning, that has this Big Issue on the streets in time for Mental Health Week (5–12 Oct). Mental illness and suicide should be on the radar every week. Every day.

This edition is for the vendors who asked for it. For Lisa and Kate and all the other eloquent and honest contributors. And for Robin Williams. Who made us laugh...and cry.

Alan Attwood, Editor

For support call Lifeline on 13 11 14.