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© NOVA OCTOBER 2009
Mental Health Awareness Week is celebrated around
Australia in the first week of October. Jo Buchanan offers a
gift of her insight into the clouded universe of mental illness.
The fine line between genius
and madness has long intrigued
humankind. People who are
mentally ill, due to the very nature of
their illness, can often override "normal"
boundaries of thinking and creative
expression, jumping from one idea to
another without logic or reason. They
forge ahead and charter new territories
with their mental bounding and leaping.
One of the biggest hurdles sufferers
confront is the attitude of friends,
employers, neighbours and sometimes
even family as they judge behaviour that
is the illness and not the person. Sadly,
this often means that people with a
mental illness face isolation and
discrimination just for having an illness.
Although we have sent man to the moon,
we still know very little about one of
the most vital organs of the body - the
Bipolar disorder, once known as
manic depression, is characterised
by its mood swings between euphoria
and depression, obsessive compulsive
disorder (OCD) by obsessive thoughts and
compulsive behaviour and schizophrenia
by hallucinations, delusions and
detachment from reality. Sufferers of
major clinical depression may also
experience hallucinations and delusions.
Robert Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven,
Handel, Judy Garland and Leonard
Cohen are just a few of the many musicians
who have lived with one of the above
illnesses. Lord Byron, John Keats, F.
Scott Fitzgerald, Spike Milligan, Charles
Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest
Hemingway are famous for their writing,
Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin,
Michelangelo and Edvard Munch for
their art. Winston Churchill and Sir
Isaac Newton are also renowned for
their contributions to humankind. Yet
all of these gifted people battled
with some form of mental illness
throughout their lives.
Although we would like to think
other wise, stigma still exists in our
society, fuelled by the media continuing
to insult the mentally ill with derogatory
labels. Some people still tend to make
fun of anyone who looks or behaves
differently from the mythical "norm".
Unlike Michelangelo, they don't see the
angel trapped inside the outer façade.
The other night I watched Larry
King inter view Jermaine Jackson, brother
of Michael Jackson, in the grounds of
Michael's fa mous home, Neverland. I
witnessed the openly grieving Jermaine
being forced to constantly defend the
fact that his brother composed the
inspirational song "We Are The World"
whilst sitting in the branches of a tree.
Larry King relentlessly pushed the
weirdness factor of composing in a tree,
while Jermaine kept trying to return the
focus to the humanitarian message of the
And who could ever forget the way
cruel smirks and sniggers of audience
members and judges turned to dropped
jaws and f lowing tears when Scottish
singer Susan Boyle burst into song on
Britain's Got Talent?
But it would be wrong to romanticise
"madness". Not everyone who lives with
a mental illness is creative. Most people
who have a mental health disorder, with
proper care and treatment, recover well
and lead full, independent lives. But a
significant number will need care and
support for varying amounts of times.
For many, their illness means a
lifelong journey of destitution and
loneliness. Award winning Australian
poet Sandy Jeffs says, "The onset of
schizophrenia can lead one to the land
of the lonely and forgotten people. It is
to enter the nightmares from which you
cannot wake; to enter a mindscape where
nothing is as it seems. It is for many a
process where one's identity is stripped
away, leaving one to walk in the shadow
of others a nd cast none of your own."
Sandy has lived with schizophrenia
for over half of her life. She is a community
educator who speaks to schools,
universities and community groups about
what it's like to live with a mental illness.
Her poetry makes me laugh and cry.
This is a poem Sandy wrote about
the famous painting of Ophelia from
Shakespeare's Hamlet, by Sir John Everett
Millas, where she is depicted lying on her
back in a woodland stream, waiting to
ON LOOKING AT MILLAIS' OPHELIA
mythologised by artists of renown
in the many tellings of your story,
you are shown in various guises
of your sodden death-dress.
I am looking at an image
of you lying dead in the glassy stream,
resplendent in a glorious silver-grey
Wistful, you hold a little garland of
O what are they?
Cornflowers, nettles, daisies and more.
But your resting place is marvellous,
and the exotic vegetation surrounding
enfolds you as though you are the Queen
rather than Laertes' document in
Do you like your watery bed?
You lie well between its mossy banks.
I saw the angel in the marble and I
carved until I set him free.
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