This is a transcript of Julia Gillard’s speech at Adelaide University in her capacity as the new chair of Beyond Blue:
I want to talk to you about seeking light in an area that has traditionally been shrouded in darkness, and that is our individual and shared experiences of mental health. Together, we can save and improve lives if we change how we talk, think and act on mental health.
It all starts with simple words.
Sayings like “seek light” or “love thy neighbour” or “yes, we can” have the power to change the things we do and the way we see the world.
Indeed as poets, philosophers and even politicians have shown over many centuries, there is something almost magical about words and the sway they have over us.
The field of mental health provides a rich study of how language and attitudes shape and reinforce each other.
Think of the word “lunacy”, which dates to the 1540s.
The word, used to describe what we would recognise today as severe mental illness, had embedded in it the then common belief that the moon’s cycles triggered the behaviour.
The law made use of the term “lunacy” to describe any unsoundness of mind that rendered a person unable to manage their own affairs. But within 40 years, by the 1580s, the language historians tell us that “lunacy” was in more common parlance and used to describe foolish conduct more generally.
Or, think of the word “hysteria”, and the fact that even today it is a term more likely to be used to describe conduct by women.
This word was gendered from the start, being drawn from the Greek word for womb.
It was used from the 1580s to describe what were viewed as neurotic conditions peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus.
By the 1800s the word was in more common use to describe high excitement or emotion.
The fact that these words double up in our language as insults is no accident.
Our language has embedded in it a disdain for, even fear of, mental illness.
Combating the stigma
The term ‘mental health’ was actually first used by physicians, social reformers and former asylum patients in the early 20th century to combat the stigma caused by such negative descriptions.
Mental health conditions — like any disability, physical or mental — have been with us forever; they are a part of the great continuum of normal human experience.
From the ancient Greeks who believed depression was an imbalance of body fluids, to early Christianity when God or the devil, or both, were to blame.
As a result people prayed, confessed, sought spiritual guidance or even resorted to exorcisms to cast out the evil that afflicted themselves or their loved ones.
In the Victorian era they built asylums. People were locked up, discarded, shut away. Some families were ashamed and tried to forget or lied about their loved one’s very existence.