Mental Health – are we doing enough?

DISCLAIMER – I’ve literally written and re-written this piece like twenty fucking times because I don’t want this to feel like it’s a pity party, that’s not the aim. I don’t want pity, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, I just want to put this out there in the hope that it might help even just one person feeling the same way I have or to inspire others to reach out to their friends if they don’t seem okay. So apologies if this is all over the place, but I need to get some shit off my chest.

I had a friend reach out to me recently because she’d noticed through my Instagram that in a lot of my stories I’d been looking defeated/exhausted and not my upbeat self; I cannot begin tell you how important it was to me that she asked – even though I didn’t think I needed someone to check in on me, it was really comforting that she did.

This isn’t even a friend that I speak to or see all that often, but she had the decency and the heart to see if I was okay, to see if I needed to talk or if there was anything I needed – we need more people like her on this earth, because simply checking in on someone to show that someone gives a shit can honestly save a life.

R U OK? Day is an incredible initiative to get people talking about mental health, but we need to be asking the question more often, not just when prompted by a day – we NEED to do more. People are taking their lives every day because they feel like there is no other option or that it doesn’t matter what happens to them.

IT MATTERS.

I have been wanting to write this piece for the longest time but have put it off for fear of judgement and a fear that people will think it is ‘attention seeking’ – which is beyond ironic because that’s the stigma I want to help break. So, bear with me if this is all over the place, my mind is running at a hundred miles an hour trying to get everything out in a way that might make an impact.

Writing is a tool I’ve always used to tell other people’s stories. I love having the ability to give someone a voice who might not otherwise speak up – so why am I so scared to speak up myself?

It’s a double-edged sword.

I want so desperately to help break the stigma around having a mental illness, but I’ve been too terrified to publicly talk about my struggles to it’s fullest extent.

I’ve never shied away from admitting I struggle with anxiety, but I’ve also never gone into depth about it because I don’t want people to think any less of me, which is so ridiculous because I will be the first to tell anyone that it’s worse to keep things to yourself.

I’ve had Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder for around 13-14 years and always felt like I’ve had a relatively good handle on it – developing coping mechanisms if I feel a panic attack coming on or letting someone know I’m just not doing too well.

But last year I missed all the signs that my mental health was declining because my symptoms weren’t like my usual anxiety symptoms – shortness of breath, restlessness, exhaustion etc.

For the first time in my life, I fell into a depression that I was so unaware I had; I had talked myself into thinking that I had something physically wrong me, as opposed to mentally.

So, for someone who is deals with mental health issues to miss signs and symptoms, how can we expect others to notice symptoms before it’s too late?

WE NEED MORE EDUCATION – it’s as simple as that and it needs to start young.

Education on the little things that might indicate something is wrong; not just typical symptoms like withdrawal from social activities, problems sleeping, irritability etc – even though they are important indicators to look for also.

I’m talking about about people who, at least on the surface, seem successful at school, at work, or at home. On the inside, however, they could be experiencing a near-constant state of depression and anxiety.

But because these people are often high achieving, no one thinks that there is anything ‘wrong’ with them and they themselves may not understand why these things are happening to them because they can’t find a ‘good enough reason’ to feel the way they do.

I didn’t realise that dizziness, stomach issues, fatigue, weakened immune system, loss or increase of appetite, chest pain and so many other things could be indicative of an underlying mental health issue. I just assumed that there was something physical going on and never thought that it could mean I was developing depression because everything else in my life was in a really good place.

I had literally lost any and all motivation to leave my house, see anyone, WRITE (which is literally the thing I love doing most in this world) and do just about anything that involved effort, but I kept telling myself that it was just because I was so sick all the time, not ‘sad’.

We need to be told at a very young age to look out for these ‘silent’ signs within ourselves so we know what they could be before it gets too overwhelming – we also need to be taught how to look after our mental health the same way we are taught to look after our physical health, one is no more important than the other.

Awareness and acceptance of mental illness may be getting stronger, but suicide rates are still climbing, so are we doing enough? I don’t think so.

Mental health education needs to start in school, it needs to be more spoken about on traditional media platforms, it needs to be a focus of every workplace, open conversations need to be had among friends and family – we all need to educate each other.

We also all need to remember check in on our mates, our family and even people we may have lost touched with, far more regularly than we do, you never know when a simple: ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ could save a life.

Shoutout to everyone who may be struggling at the moment, you’re fucking awesome and don’t ever think otherwise.

The Question Igniting Discussion About Mental Illness

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“IT’S LIKE YOU’RE SAD ALL THE TIME AND THAT’S THE ONLY THING YOU CAN FEEL, YOU’RE DROWNING IN SADNESS AND YOU DON’T SEE A POINT TO ANYTHING AND NOTHING IS GOING TO MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER.”

Every morning as Sophie*, 22, opens her eyes and peeks out from under the bedcovers she is flooded with the crippling fear that today she will disappoint someone.

“The bed is safe, it’s warm, I don’t have to be anywhere and fake that I’m ok, I can’t disappoint anyone there,” she said.

Thoughts of failing uni or not being there for someone and not knowing how to support them plague Sophie like a dark cloud and leave her in a constant state of unease.

Anxiety and depression crept into Sophie’s life when she was just 16, slowly infiltrating her mind before coming to a climax two years later.

“I started getting feelings of sadness around 16, but it would come and go and then it fully hit when I was 18 and doing VCE, coming out of school and had the pressure of friendships.”

She said sometimes her thoughts were so distressing that she turned to hurting herself to stop the whirlwind in her mind.

“I’d sometimes have thoughts like the world would be better if I wasn’t here; Mum and Dad wouldn’t worry about me if I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have to feel like I’m disappointing people, I wouldn’t have to struggle every day,” she said.

“I’d bang my head into things or piss the cat off so she’d give me a bit of a nip.

“For a little while it would put my mind on ‘ow that hurts’ and give me something to focus on to help me stop panicking and stop being sad, but it never really helped for long.”

But Sophie still struggled to get people to understand her mental health condition.

“It’s hard to make people understand, it’s hard sometimes to even get across how you feel or why you feel that way, you can just be feeling it,” she said.

“It can be that people roll their eyes and people don’t want to hear about it.

“I would call in sick to work but I would make up a story that I had a migraine because I feel like if I said ‘I’m mentally unwell today’ no one really gets that it’s preventing you from leaving the house.”

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R U Ok Day campaign director Katherine Newton says the mental health foundation is working to change the stigma surrounding mental health.

The R U Ok Day conversation convoy began in Geelong last month and involves four vehicles and a dedicated team travelling to regional cities and towns to “equip people with the skills and the confidence to start a conversation” about mental health.

“We do know that many Australians aren’t comfortable asking the question because they’re worried about the reaction that they might get if they do ask, and indeed one of those reactions might be ‘no I’m not ok’,” Ms Newton said.

She said the convoy, now in its second year, aimed to “link people up with services in their local area” because regional areas have higher rates of suicide than metro areas.

It shouldn’t be just one day, you should ask ‘are you ok?’ every day,” Ms Newton said.

Sophie is far from alone in her battle with mental illness, she is one of the four million Australians who report having a mental or behavioural condition, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014-15 data shows.   

Anxiety-related conditions are most frequently reported, with at least 2.6-million people or 11.2 per cent of the population suffering from the condition and 2.1-million people or 9.3 per cent of the population suffering from mood disorders, which include depression.

For now Sophie is holding out hope for a day when talking about mental illness will be as easy as talking about physical illness.

“I think it’s a lot more open to talk about, it’s definitely addressed more in things, there’s posters and R U Ok Day, but I still think there’s still a stigma around mental illness, so there’s some way to go but maybe not a long way,” she said.

The Conversation convoy will finish its journey in Canberra on September 12 in time to celebrate R U Ok Day on September 13, after visiting 20 cities and towns to spread a message of hope.

HOW TO ASK ‘ARE YOU OK?’

R U Ok Day campaign director Katherine Newton said it was important to keep an eye on people who were going through a relationship breakdown, grief, physical illness or a difficult time at work.

“It might be people are withdrawn or their performance is suffering at work, they might be distant, or it might be strange behaviour like being maniac or overexaggerating things,” she said.

Ms Newton explains the four simple steps to asking ‘are you ok?’

1. ASK

“If you notice anything out of the ordinary you should ask them if they’re ok in a comfortable and quiet place that is good for them.”

2. LISTEN

“It is really, really important to listen with an open mind, try not to interrupt or jump in and try not to solve the problem, quite often people will just want to verbalise what’s on their mind and quite often speaking with someone and having those thoughts out there can really help.”

3. ENCOURAGE ACTION

“The next step is about action and that’s about trying to find a way to help them manage the load, so it might be for example that they go and see their GP or talk to their manager or a teacher or someone else they feel comfortable talking to.

“They could give Lifeline a call or contact other support services or websites that have good resources, it doesn’t have to be many things it’s just one thing that will help them manage the load.”

4. CHECK IN

“Once someone has shared that they’re not doing very well, it’s really important to get alongside them and see how they’re doing in a few days.”

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Written by Olivia Reed