Mental illness impacts your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It’s complex and hard to recognise in others, and even in yourself. It’s taken me a long time to understand that it’s OK to not feel OK.
And yet our society doesn’t really accept this notion, making it hard for people who are struggling to admit they’re not OK and seek help.
Just think: When you’re sick, you go to a doctor. If you’re unfit, you go to a personal trainer. If your shoulder hurts, you see a physiotherapist. But when our mind is unwell, what do we do? For many people, nothing at all.
Since I was 17, I’ve experienced depression and anxiety. It runs in my family. But it was only after my parent’s sudden separation, when my world fell apart, that I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Throughout my final year of high school, I struggled with my mental health. I couldn’t focus, attending classes was a challenge and I no longer enjoyed my pastimes.
Although aware of what was happening to me, I couldn’t control it. Soon after, I was diagnosed with depression.
Not enjoying socialising and not wanting to do the things you once loved is heartbreaking.
I remember sitting in class with a friend on day. He looked at me and said: “I just want the old Emma back”. I’ll never forget that moment. It was devastating, because I had changed.
Fortunately, my family GP was able to identify the help I needed. I saw a psychologist often, which enabled me to cope. I was also medicated which helped to stabilise my mood.
Long story short: I completed my schooling and went overseas for a year before starting university.
Although I still experience anxiety and depression 14 years later, I’m OK. It’s a part of my life. The ups and downs happen. I’ve learned from this experience, and I now know how to manage my mental health and seek help in difficult times.
I’m happy to talk about my experience. I’m comfortable saying “I’m not OK”.
I hope in talking so openly about my own mental health that it helps others to know that it’s OK for them to as well.
My personal experience with mental illness is not uncommon. In fact, mental illness is very common.
Black Dog Institute, a research institute and not-for-profit organisation that aims to contribute to a mentally healthier world, provides these staggering statistics:
- Each year 1 in 5 Australians experience mental illness
- 65% of people do not seek professional support
- Suicide is the leading cause of death among 15 – 44 year olds.
Talking to the professionals
Amanda Curran, registered psychologist and director of Family Matters Psychology Services, said mental health is something that we often take for granted and are often so unprepared for when it is challenged.
“Most people fear the judgement of others. They don’t want to be seen as crazy or incompetent. They feel guilt and shame that it’s their fault they have become unwell, when there may have been multiple factors that have contributed to it,” Curran said.
Despite a range of services on offer, people often wait a long time before getting help.
“For many, symptoms build up over time. It’s only when things get to crisis point that they begin to get help,” Curran said.
Curran believes that help needs to be easier to access.
“It’s true that more Australians die from suicide than skin cancer but there is still less money put into research and prevention than there is for skin cancer,” she said.
“There needs to be a ‘no wrong door’ policy so that whatever anyone does to get help, it opens up more opportunities for flexible treatment options to suit their needs.”
How I cope
I still see a psychologist from time to time, and know I have the networks and resources to get through the lows.
When I recognise that I’m struggling, I say to work, friends and family: “I’m not coping” or “I need to slow down and step back” or “I need help.”
It’s important to get your own toolbox of strategies which can help you at a time when you’re not OK.
Some of the things that help me include:
- Increasing exercise
- Getting more sleep and taking days of rest
- Cutting back on unnecessary commitments
- Reducing my workload
- Eating more fresh foods and drinking lots of water
- Meditating – Bhuddify app has helped me significantly to manage my mood day to day. I do 5-10 minutes of guided meditation most mornings and evenings through the app.
- Colouring in and puzzles. These are my ‘zone out’ activities.
But, I will point out, just because I recognise the signs and start doing these activities doesn’t mean the bad feelings stop. I still have to ride the wave and go through those tough days.
It seems strange to say, but I am grateful for having experienced depression at such a young age because I know now that I will be OK. With help and support, it can be OK.
Do you need help?
The biggest turning point in my journey was asking for help.
If you need help managing your mental health, Curran suggests these services available to the Australian public:
- Medicare rebates for sessions with psychologists (speak to your GP to access a subsidised mental health plan)
- Primary health networks who assist people to access free treatment
- Acute inpatient services at public hospitals
- Mental health nurses who can assist those with more severe cases of mental illness.
Black Dog Institute also offers some great apps, including Snapshot – an app that helps you to quickly assess your mood.
There’s also myCompass, an interactive self-help program to help you manage mild to moderate stress, anxiety and/or depression.
If you’re struggling and not sure where to turn, please contact LIFELINE by calling 13 11 14.
Emma Lovell is a volunteer corporate speaker for Black Dog Institute, where she shares her personal experience of mental illness to raise awareness of mental health at businesses and events.