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

Meet Romy – the girl who’s running 1000k’s in 140 days for mental health awareness.

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One in seven young Australians experience a mental health condition and it’s estimated that one million Australians have an eating disorder, with this number only increasing.

Romy Harwood is no stranger to the demons of mental health and what they can take from you, including her will to live.

The gorgeous 24-year-old has suffered from anorexia since 2015 and has been battling with depression for almost 10 years, but is now taking back her life and wants to raise awareness of reducing the stigma that surrounds eating disorders and mental illness.

“Someone who has cancer that you can see and you can treat, no one says to them, ‘well you did this to yourself,’ I just want people to just see it as an illness and not just something you choose,” Romy says.

“It’s not a life choice, no one would choose this”.

Romy is very open about the fact that if it weren’t for youth mental health service Headspace, she wouldn’t be here with us today.

As a way to show her gratitude and give back to those who have helped her on her journey of recovery, Romy is running 1000 kilometers in 140 days in the hope to raise $5000 for Headspace.

“I read this article and it was people stopping treatment because they couldn’t afford to continue and it kind of resonated with me because I remember, even though I had Headspace, it created financial stress on my family,” she says.

“I had to go to the GP twice a week and then meds on top of that – Even just anti-depressants, which themselves cost $80. Some people don’t have access to services such as Headspace and they’re paying for psych sessions, GPs,  and everything else. So I read that and I was thought shit, if I didn’t have Headspace I wouldn’t be here, 100%.”

“It sat with me for a bit and I was out for a run one day – it was just one of those beautiful days, and I was having a random moment of reflection about how I am really enjoying where my life is at right now and I knew this is what I wanted to do, I wanted to give back,” Romy says.

It had worked out that on that day of mental clarity it had been 1000 days since Romy had been diagnosed with anorexia and was 140 days until Mental Health Awareness Week, so she started running, but this time running for a reason.

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Before Romy could reach this stage in her life, her days were quite dark –  at her worst she was only 39kgs and on the brink of death.

“I couldn’t sleep because I was so boney, I couldn’t lean any way to get comfy, I was just in so much pain trying to get out of bed every day and I knew that it wasn’t good, but it was like having a split personality, I wanted to keep losing,” she says.

“I went to the GP and she said if you go out for a run the likelihood of your heart stopping is so high, you’re 1km away from death and I was thought okay no worries and then an hour later I was out running.”

“It’s quite scary thinking back to that stage in my life and I really was one step away from a heart attack,” she says.

One of the hardest things for anyone with a mental illness is seeking help, especially in the mind of someone who has an eating disorder as they genuinely believe there is nothing wrong with them.

If it wasn’t for her GP and parents forcing her into getting help, she knows she would have gone on living in her fantasy world until it killed her.

“Looking back now I can’t thank them enough, but at the time I was a 2-year-old having a tantrum; pushing them away, telling them not to touch my stuff and I’ve never seen my parents so upset, my Dad couldn’t talk, he was just sitting on the couch crying, it was really hard,” she says.

“I pretty much lost all independence, we went through family-based therapy at Headspace and I couldn’t leave the house without asking permission, which was actually harder than continuing to be sick – because I knew how to do that, and I could do it well.”

It was a long time before Romy realized she wanted to get better rather than people telling her she needed to get better.

“I spent a week at the Geelong hospital and I had to gain 5 kilos in the week, so that was hard – getting weighed every day, blood tests 3 times a day, ECG’s 2 times a day; you’re lying there, and you’re poked and prodded. I was in a constant battle with myself, my parents, my family, my sisters,” she says.

“It got harder before it got easier. To get better it’s really a one-in-all-in approach, I wouldn’t have gotten through it without my family and I’m so grateful for them.”

While Romy is on her journey of recovery she is fully transparent in the fact that it’s not always easy and she still has hard days.

“I haven’t had anything that’s been the hardest day or hardest run, but there’s been moments. My life is definitely not perfect now; once a week I’ll have a ‘throw the towel in kind of day’, but they’re just the dark days and they’re not the darkest I’ve had, so I know I can beat them,” she says.

Romy is studying health sciences at Deakin and hopes to work in the public health sector one day to help people who may be experiencing the same demons she has.

“I want to reduce those statistics. I think in terms of people with eating disorders, 70% of them result in death, whether that be complications or suicide, which is huge to me because I don’t think people realise or understand how many people in the world suffer from an eating disorder and it breaks my heart to see people go through what my family and I did,” she says.

Romy hopes that through all this, if she can reach just one person, that it will help them get the help they need to get their lives back, the same way she did.

“Just get help. As scary as it is, just lean on the people around you and say I can’t do this on my own and I can’t live like this anymore. As much as you’re stuck in that rut, in that cycle, just don’t be afraid to get help.”

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Follow Romy’s journey through her Instagram page @romharwood

Click here to donate to Romy’s Headspace campaign and buy tickets to her final fundraiser here.