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identity crisis: my mental illness is not considered a disability in victoria – but should it be?

naomi snell
The Victorian Disability Sector Awards
(supported by the Victorian Government Department of Human Services) were designed to ‘celebrate the achievements of individuals, teams, organisations and businesses assisting people with disabilities to achieve their personal goals.’ However, the Awards have previously not accepted nominations for people who suffer mental illness. Not realising this, in 2012 I nominated a mental health advocate for the Award, but he was ruled ineligible for the prize by the panel because ‘mental illness is not defined as a disability under the [Victorian] Disability Act 2006.’

According to the Disability Act 2006, Act No. 23/2006, the definition of “disability” is:

a) A sensory, physical or neurological impairment or acquired brain injury or any combination thereof, which –

i. Is, or likely to be permanent; and
ii. Causes substantially reduced capacity in at least one of the areas of self-care, self-management, mobility or communication; and
iii. Requires significant ongoing or long term episodic support; and
iv. Is not related to ageing; or

b) An intellectual disability; or

c) A developmental delay.

At the time, I was advised that ‘despite the excellence of the application and the clear value of the work being done by the nominee the application was not considered eligible.’ The letter did say, however, that, ‘because of the clear relevance of the nominee’s contribution to the sector the criteria for the awards was being reviewed.’ (A step in the right direction, at the very least?)

I was so shocked that I wrote to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, hoping this decision could be rectified in good faith. But my desire to have the “disability” conundrum clarified never came to fruition. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Disability Discrimination Act, those with psychiatric illnesses are considered to have a disability, and in some cases they are also eligible for Australian Government disability support pensions – a very different interpretation of disability to that of the Victorian Government.

Being a mental healthcare consumer who suffers a psychiatric illness, I am now left with an identity crisis. I have identified as having a disability, but should I? Was this incorrect? Certainly, according to Canberra I am disabled, but I am not in my home state of Victoria. This in and of itself may seem like a Bipolar inspired question, but it is a very relevant one, particularly given the debilitating impact mental illness continues to have on our society. Mental illnesses have been identified as the third biggest health problem in Australia after heart disease and cancer.

The very definition of disability includes a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. It may also be considered a disadvantage – especially one imposed or recognised by the law. My own personal lived experience has included (but not been limited to) losses of independence and certainly social disadvantage, particularly having been confined to a hospital environment for extended periods of time. Having eventually been diagnosed as having Type II Bipolar Disorder and severe panic disorder, most aspects of my life have been affected, including personal relationships and a loss of independence.

Bipolar Type II is a mental illness and mood disorder that cycles between high and low. It can manifest as either irritability or euphoria. “Low moods” or depressive symptoms can include thought of suicide. “High moods” or hypomanic periods of the illness can also lead to erratic and unhealthy behaviour. Having experienced all of these symptoms, it seems to me absurd that those who suffer these conditions and others are not deemed “socially disadvantaged” enough in certain government endorsed activities, such as these awards.
Indeed, it is clear that there is considerable disparity between the Federal and Victorian disability laws. Having received the response I did in 2012 regarding the awards criteria being reviewed, I had hoped that two years later, the Victorian Government’s awards would have caught up with their federal counterparts. It’s time for a new era and to end the disability discrimination.

Naomi Snell is a Monash University politics and sociology graduate and former editor of Lot’s Wife. A driven mental health activist and former Outreach worker, she is currently writing a book on her lived experience, both in and out of psychiatric care. In her spare time, Naomi created a not-for-profit pet therapy program for the companion animals of those experiencing crisis, which has been successful in receiving two Victorian (DEPI) government grants. In 2013, Naomi was recognised as a national finalist in the International Day of People With Disability (IDPWD) awards.

2 thoughts on “identity crisis: my mental illness is not considered a disability in victoria – but should it be?

  1. Even though only a small amount of people will get access to it, hopefully the NDIS will help break down the silos in VIC and across Australia! It has some progressive ideas about disability.

    Can’t wait for your book to be released!! Sounds great.

  2. Important questions.
    I encountered a similar conundrum when I was recognised as a carer, and eligible for carer payment, for an individual whose disability was not recognised for the disability support pension. Surely the two should bear some relationship to each other? Surely I could not be seen to be caring for someone whose disability prevented them from engaging in the community to the extent that they needed someone else to be fully employed caring for them, without the disability of that person also being recognised?
    In the case of mental illness, presumably some adequately influential medico could argue that a mental illness is a form of neurological disorder so as to meet the Victorian criteria. But why? How does it help anybody to argue disability down to such a narrow definition, when the objective is to provide the support needed to have people more able to get on with life?

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