OPINION – In a recent conversation with my 27-year-old daughter, I noticed that she was both enraged and energised by the recent appearance of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame at the National Press Club. Her words were something like they are both amazing and Grace Tame is so authentic and incredibly compelling. My hunch is that she is not a regular viewer of the National Press Club address, but part of an emerging generation of women who have simply had enough, and are concerned about what they see, hear, and experience every day.
After the press club address, Grace Tame published an open letter responding to the media publication of photos of her sitting next to a bong. We don’t know the motivations of the media in doing this, but Grace Tame called it out as an act of shaming that showed either ignorance about how trauma affects people or, at worst, complicit actions in perpetuating an abuse culture. In her letter, the 2021 Australian of the Year gave us all a succinct and compelling lesson about the impact of trauma and the way that might play out in someone’s life.
We also saw in the media, criticism of Grace Tame’s angry facial expressions, reflecting an expectation that she should somehow hide her rage. To the uninformed, this expression of emotion and anger was explained as a lack of manners, but the result was more shaming of someone who has experienced previous trauma. It made me reflect on how society does not encourage women to speak up, let alone accept any expression of rage and anger from women. There is more commonly an expectation that women and girls, play nice, don’t make a fuss and smile. I worry that this pervasive expectation continues to keep women from speaking up.
We have also witnessed women being used as shields, toning down the behaviour of men in their lives, somehow perpetuating the view in society that women are more contained in how they express themselves. Whilst many women might have this learned behaviour, I wonder if this happens at a cost. We know that mental health is a major concern in young people with some estimations of more than a quarter of women under 35 experiencing anxiety and depression. Whilst this has been trending upward for all young people it is particularly prevalent in young women, who are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. There is much for them to be concerned about when we hear the stories and experiences of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, and how slow our society is to make fundamental change. There is little leadership around this change, and when we see male public figures using their wives to soften their images and protect their own reputations, it is hard to see how progress will be made.
In the broader mental health system, we often talk about our trauma-informed approaches and gender sensitive practice, but is this how people experience care? We still have mixed sex mental health units where women have reported feeling unsafe, and our main entry point to mental health crisis care is a hospital emergency department, which we know is an unsuitable environment for those in acute distress. Many people, through the numerous reviews of the system, have described their experiences of care in these environments as traumatising or retraumatising. My fear is that we may have substantially changed our language, but not always translated it into a meaningful change in practice.
Whilst I in no way profess to be a trauma expert, there are a few things we do know from those who are. We know that a high proportion of people who seek or are referred to mental health services are survivors of multiple kinds of adversity which constitute psychological and emotional trauma. Trauma-informed services should have organisational processes which focus on preventing trauma and retraumatisation in the care that is offered. As Grace Tame so eloquently pointed out:
“Trauma can be ugly. It can look like drugs. Like self-harm, skipping school, getting impulsive tattoos and all kinds of other unconscious, self-destructive, maladaptive coping mechanisms.”
Trauma does not necessarily need a medical response in the first instance, but as it currently stands, our mental health system is set up to pathologise distress. Instead, trauma needs a much more compassionate, encouraging and forgiving approach. A good start would be warm entry points in the community, where people can build their self-agency and develop the skills to reclaim their lives.
As we approach International Women’s Day, I can’t help but hope that my daughter’s experience will be very different from my generation’s, and that when she has the courage to stand up to gender injustice and inequity she will be listened to. My hope is that she finds her voice when she needs it and can fiercely follow her ambitions without prejudice. I believe that you choose to admire leaders who reflect skills and attributes you already have in yourself, so I am very happy with her choice of Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins.
Chief Executive Officer
Queensland Alliance for Mental Health
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QAMH is the peak body for community-managed mental health organisations, representing more than 100 not-for-profit services that work with people experiencing mental health challenges.
QAMH CEO Jennifer Black is available for comment on community mental health and wellbeing matters.
Media contact: Emma Griffiths, QAMH Director – Advocacy and Communications
M: 0439 971 080