One of the saddest stories I have heard recently is that surrounding the death of the Channel Ten newsreader and journalist, Charmaine Dragun, shown on Australian Story this week. It is, nonetheless, an important story to be told, as it highlights the innocence and ignorance of many people — sufferers, health professionals and family members alike — when it comes to mental illness.
Charmaine Dragun seemed to have the world at her feet: a successful job, a loving partner and supportive family members. Yet none guessed the true nature and extent of her mental suffering, especially given her ability to carry on with her hectic work schedule and keep up a happy face.
Then one day, she took herself to The Gap and threw herself off.
It is obvious that she did not intend to wreak havoc on the lives of those who loved her and whom she loved in return. The agony and disbelief on the faces of those she left behind was heartbreaking to behold.
With serious mood disorders, such as clinical depression and bipolar I or II, there is a major genetic/chemical component; sufferers will usually require long-term pharmaceutical intervention under the close supervision of a psychiatrist. A wide range of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI anti-depressants), as well as mood stabilisers, such as lithium, exist today, and can successfully treat the dangerous lows of clinical depression or the highs and lows of bipolar illness. But there is a big difference between a diagnosis of depression and that of bipolar illness. Untreated, sufferers of the latter have a 20% increased risk of suicide compared to the rest of the population. One of the problems is getting a correct diagnosis, since sufferers are often able to mask symptoms by way of personality factors, and by ‘self-medicating’ with drugs and alcohol. Sometimes it is difficult for a psychiatrist to reach a decision about an individual patient’s symptoms, and the patients, themselves, may be non-compliant when it comes to medication.
A huge part of the problem is societal attitudes towards mental illness in general. People suffering from serious mental illness are often marginalised by society, or old to “pull up your socks!” and stop being so irrational. This only compounds the problems, leading to denial and lack of acceptance of the need for pharmaceutical intervention.