Elfy Scott is an award-winning journalist, presenter and the newly appointed editor of Mamamia! She is also someone who grew up with a mother who experienced a complex mental health condition. Elfy has just written a book all about this entitled “The One Thing We’ve Never Spoken About”. Here, Elfy shares more about her new book, her “family secret” and why breaking down stigma surrounding mental health has to start with education and self-reflection.
What compelled you to write your book now?
I think it was something that had been building up in me for years because I’d seen so much mental health dialogue online and I was confused why, even though I was consuming so much valuable content about depression and anxiety (and increasingly ADHD), it still seemed like there was a huge chunk of the conversation missing. I had just quit my full-time job as a journalist and presenter at Junkee and I was really keen to start a bigger project, so it seemed like the perfect time to try and approach a book. I also felt as though, possibly for the first time in our lives, my family was at a point where we were ready to talk about it honestly – so a lot of pieces fell into place.
Why do you think that your mom’s mental health and her diagnosis of schizophrenia was not spoken about in your home as a child growing up?
There was a broad combination of factors that kept Mum’s condition a secret. For a start, as I describe in the book, my mum is a very private person and doesn’t love disclosing personal information to other people, including us. We are also, despite being a very close family, not particularly inclined to speaking about emotional topics, so I think it was also unnatural to a certain extent for us to approach a topic that was inherently quite big and emotional. I also think that, tied into those factors, is the fact that complex mental health conditions are so stigmatised, so deeply misunderstood, and so frightening that even in our (relatively “normal” and quite boring) household, it was still seen as too difficult to tackle, so we simply never did.
What affect would it have had on your life today, had you been able to speak about it with your family?
I think I would have felt a lot more comfortable with my family because it maybe could have given me a better understanding of what was happening in our lives and why things felt so strange sometimes. I think I would have felt more at ease with friends and able to discuss what was going on in my home life more confidently. But besides that, I think that having a secret – any secret – that’s kept so openly and undiscussed and lingers over a family can have profound effects on family members and in a way, I think it may not have even been relevant that the open secret was schizophrenia, I just think the biggest frustration was that we couldn’t speak about something and yet we were all so close in so many other ways.
You reiterate in your book, and your research points to it too, that sharing stories in a safe space can reduce the effects of the mental health challenge on the quality of your life. What difference would it have made to your younger self to have had the opportunity to connect with other young people growing up with similar family circumstances to you, and to share your story with them?
It would have made an enormous difference to be able to speak to people who shared similar experiences growing up – those same interactions are incredibly meaningful to me even as an adult. I would have loved to know that there were other people out there who I could relate to but as it was I just felt enormously lonely quite a lot of the time about Mum’s mental health condition.
You explain that you use the term “complex mental health condition” to describe less common conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar, BPD and OCD as examples, and that for you, using the word “illness” is making a “pathologizing value judgement” (we couldn’t agree more!) Why do you think it is so important to consider the language we use when talking about mental health?
Language is incredibly powerful and that’s something I came to realise more and more in the book. Words are powerful not only for the way that they can explicitly harm people but for the ways that they can obscure the truth, step back from responsibility, or keep certain groups of people at arm’s length. I did quite a bit of consultation on language to land on the use of “complex mental health conditions” – and I know that even that isn’t perfect because it’s quite wordy and you can’t put it on a book cover very easily! I think it’s just important to settle on the language that you think most closely aligns with your values and the last thing I wanted to do with this book was rub people with lived experience the wrong way. This was the happiest medium.
Your book so beautifully speaks to creativity, and the power of the arts to transform people’s lives – this is something we are passionate about at Satellite! How has the creative process of writing your book and speaking openly about your family’s situation impacted your life now, as an adult?
I have always loved writing so, to be honest, this was a really natural progression for me! I absolutely love that I was able to sit and be creative for so long – that was extremely meaningful to me. Writing the book, like any other form of creative practice, also allowed you to access thoughts about your own life – lots of which I didn’t even know were there, so it was a bit therapeutic too. But I also think I love writing because it’s such a social activity and the relationship with the reader is built into it. Thinking about the value for the reader the entire way through was a big priority for the book.
What are some of the strengths that this experience has had/is having on your life?
I think I’ve become a bit more reflective as a result of writing this book. Sifting through all of your own thoughts/opinions forces you to second-guess everything and I think that’s been really helpful for breaking down my own stereotypes and assumptions about people.
What do you hope readers take away from “The One Thing We’ve Never Spoken About”?
I just hope they walk away with a little bit more empathy for other people – as well as a bunch more questions about their own thought processes. I think breaking down stigma has to start with some education and some self-reflection, so I hope people ultimately end up with the same experience that I did!