In Conversation With My Grandma

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My grandma is in her late nineties. She’s adorable, a classic sweetheart that pats rouge on her cheeks by day, and tucks curlers in her hair by night. When you hug her she sinks into your arms, and somehow she makes bad things seem good. I hate tuna mornay and mince tarts, but I like her tuna mornay and mince tarts, if you know what I mean. She loves a cup of tea, has a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II in her hallway, and prays for me every night.

We are really close, I can talk to her about anything and she listens to me without judgement or scrutiny. But there’s one topic that we completely disagree on. In discussions that end in silence or sometimes tears, it’s absolutely obvious that we are not on the same page about mental health. She understands influenza, cancer, deafness, bronchitis and measles, but she doesn’t understand my depression, my cousin’s addiction, or my auntie’s anxiety.

Like many young people, I’ve spent years being upset and disappointed at older generations for their lack of empathy and infuriating denial when it comes to mental illness. For saying “it’s a choice” or “be grateful”. Or for rolling their eyes and suggesting you “just need to eat something” or “have a nap”. The worst part? In response they expect us to turn around with a smile and say: 

“Thank you so much for that pearl of wisdom, I haven’t tried ‘just being happy’ but I’ll give it a go and let you know if I’m cured, thanks again”.

A more realistic response is turning around and screaming:

“You just don’t understand”.

I’ve caught myself saying this to my grandma over and over again, convincing myself that older generations just don’t get it. I’ve found it easier to put up walls and try to deal with things alone, than to explain how I feel to people that don’t understand.

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But recently, I had somewhat of an epiphany. I realised that as young people we never question why older generations find it hard to comprehend mental illness. Obviously they grew up in a different society, a different time, with ideas and values so different to ours. But before we get up in arms about their lack of understanding, I realised that it would probably be more helpful to ask them why they don’t understand.

So, on my weekly call to grandma a few weeks ago, I threw her a massive curveball. Instead of catching up on what uncle Alan was doing in his caravan, or whether the pansies survived the heatwave, I asked her about her experiences and opinions on mental health and Australia in the 1900s.

Here’s what she had to say.

On The War And PTSD

“Well the worst I ever saw was from the wars. Mental illness was mainly seen in PTSD from war veterans. After the first World War in 1918, many soldiers suffered when they came home. In fact, my father was a man who could not readily express himself, and I’m sure he suffered from post-traumatic stress. When he returned, I remember seeing him in the yard sitting in the chair rocking, with his hands over his ears as a plane flew overhead. And then of course came the next World War that your grandfather was in. When the men came back from the Prisoner of War camps, they suffered. Yes, I’m sure they suffered. But it was never spoken about, and I don’t think anyone understood how events of the war affected the men and when they came back no one cared very much. The family cared, but there was no help. It wasn’t acknowledged back then, mental illness, and I think much of the burden was left to the families to deal with.”

On Mental Institutions

“Now I come to think of it, my grandfather wasn’t right in his mind, and he had to go into a place called Callum Park. It was a mental institution, and I don’t know how long he was there. He wasn’t a dangerous man but I remember my mother was very grieved and sad about it, but I can’t think of anyone else that had mental troubles. The only answer to the problem in those times was that people were hospitalised in these places, these institutions. But then they closed those places and let the people go home to look after themselves, and it wasn’t a good move. There was no alternative to the hospital situation and no other help was offered. It wasn’t good for anyone.”

On The Stigma

“When I was growing up I wasn’t aware of any young people that I was acquainted with who had mental health problems. I’m not sure if mental illness just wasn’t around as much in those days, or if people just kept it quiet. I think it’s a bit of both. Depression, bipolar, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, and so forth were often hidden by the person suffering from the illness. If family members did know about it, they would sometimes prevent them from going outside, if they thought their behaviour was shameful or embarrassing for the family. Or even worse than that, they would kick them out and leave them to their own doings. It would be something that families would want to hide and keep private. If someone suffered from mental illness, they were afraid of people knowing about it. I don’t know why they felt ashamed but perhaps it’s because there was a stigma around it. It was different from a broken neck or a heart attack or something. Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with anyone in the family that was like that. But these days many people have addictions to alcohol and gambling and those things. And only since your cousin has gone through that have I come to realise that it’s an illness."

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On Modern Life

“I don’t know why there seems to be so much [mental illness] now. But gosh the pressure! Especially on young people and families. These days the way of living and trying to keep up, trying to get enough money to get a house and clothe your children and so forth, it’s so difficult these days. I had a very easy life compared to young people now, jobs were easy to get. You could apply for jobs and get interviews for them all. If you’re in an executive role now, your job doesn’t end at five o'clock, you’re at the beck and call of the company you work for all hours of the day and night. It seems things are too rushed and people are just trying to make enough money to exist. Yes, I’m sure I lived in the best time, nowadays there is just too much stress in our society. Maybe that’s why mental health issues are so prevalent.”

On School

"There was a certain amount of tension attached to university exams and school, but nothing like these days. I don’t remember any bullying at school either. I was a very average person in the class, and I suppose I worried about the exams when they came but these days I’ve watched you and your cousins get so stressed about studying because it defines your success and your jobs nowadays. It makes me so sad darling, all these young people are worth so much more than their marks and their jobs and their silly cars. My neighbour just got one of those silly cars, he’s a young person, and he’s painted it purple. It almost touches the ground; I don’t know how it gets into their driveway. Maybe that’s why he parks it onto the street.”

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They say the older generations of Australia were brought up differently to us, that there are some things they’ll never understand. Mental illness shouldn’t be one of those things. It’s something that touches and affects everyone no matter how old we are, and all of us have a responsibility to educate ourselves about it. However, as much as we expect the elders in our lives to understand us, it’s important that we try and empathise with their points of view too. This doesn’t mean that their archaic views on mental health should be accepted, hell no. But when we reflect about how mental health was hidden, denied, and stigmatised when they were growing up, it definitely provides insight into why they may think the way they do.

If anything, it should make us realise, that as young people, we are so lucky to be growing up in an era that is investigating and breaking the stigma around mental health. It should also force us to remember that even though the people we love may not understand mental health wholly and fully, it doesn’t mean they love us any less. After all, my grandma still told me she loved me thirteen times before hanging up her landline.

Written by Alannah Skinner

Edited by Samantha Callender


Any information on this blog is not a substitute for professional advice. It is written from personal experience and research only. If you are in crisis, go to your nearest emergency room, call lifeline on 13 11 14 or dial 000. 

Paris Jeffcoat