I attended Blokes Day a few Sundays ago at Clarendon showground. The event had a lot of drawcards aimed to attract men – vintage engines, motorcycles, trucks, tools and more. The underlying point was to draw men and their families in and bring them into contact with information and services around the issue of men’s health. It’s been many years since I last attended a bike rally or tattoo show, so the unmistakable rumble of approaching Harley Davidsons in formation brought forth a flood of memories. Despite the dark clouds which gathered in the sky late on Saturday, the weather was perfect – crisp, clear and sunny. Over the course of the day, I had conversations with a number of people, both young and old, but one incident in particular stuck in my mind.
I saw them coming from some distance away – two bikers, big guys, wearing vests bedecked with sewn-on patches. One of them seemed focused on their conversation, but the other kept glancing in my direction – casting sidelong glances at the banner beside me. They worked their way over towards me, chatting all the way.
As they got closer, the guy who had been sneaking looks came up to the table, head down, side on, avoiding eye contact. When he was close enough he stepped forward quickly, grabbed one of the pamphlets from my table, folded it and stuffed it into his vest pocket. Then he was gone. It happened that fast that I’m not sure his mate even noticed.
I don’t know why he acted this way, but I can make an educated guess. My guess is that he didn’t want to demonstrate any interest or strike up a conversation because of the stigma which is attached to mental illness. Biker culture is hyper-masculine – it values strength, courage, and independence, things which are still not associated with mental illness, despite the millions of dollars spent by organizations such as beyondblue and the best efforts of countless and often nameless consumer advocates and activists.
Throughout the day, I noticed, time and again, people walk past my stall and look at my banner. I saw the light of recognition in their eyes – not that they were aware of mental illness in some abstract manner, but that they had lived experience of the impact that mental health issues can have upon an individual and the people closest to them. Despite that recognition, most walked past. I talked to more people in the last half hour before packing up than in the two hours beforehand – people who waited for the crowd to thin before approaching to talk about their brother, their son, their daughter or workmate.
Why does this matter? It matters because stigma kills. The fear of being labeled as one of “those people”, or being closely associated with one, makes people reluctant to seek assistance. Sometimes that reluctance ends in suicide, or a life lost to pain and isolation which could have been salvaged.
Because of the stigma associated with mental illness, it’s hard to speak up. Sometimes nothing takes more strength than admitting a 'weakness'.