What do we talk about when we talk about mental health?
Over a lifetime at least 45% of us will experience a mental illness and at least 690,000 Australians will live with a complex mental illness (CMI). The symptoms do not exist in isolation, but impact individuals and those around them in complex and often very different ways.
Although knowledge of mental health is incomplete, there are a few things that can be said for certain: it isn’t laziness, a product of bad diet or excessive need to fabricate, nor weakness of character. Mental illness is as real as any disease and as common as the flu — affecting everyone in different ways.
Katelyn is a 22 year-old, aspiring photographer and regional Arts Communications and Administration Manager.
Growing up in Mackay in a tightly-knit family of five with good ties in the local community, Katelyn says she would often come home from school to find friends munching snacks and playing video-games in her lounge room. More often than not it was, family friend and promising footy player Regan Greives.
In 2008, Katelyn began to suspect something was amiss, her feelings felt heavy, unsorted and often frenetic. Simple tasks became insurmountable and she began to feel exhausted by waking life. Although Katelyn knewq something was wrong, it took her a year to finally reach-out. In 2009, Katelyn was diagnosed with Depression and chronic Anxiety. Yet, however relieving the diagnosis was, she says it was only the beginning of a long and often tricky road to navigate.
While a diagnosis may provide an explanation, they don’t stop panic attacks, hair pulling, chewing your gums until ulcers form or the bouts of IBS common to anxiety disorders. To many, anxiety is a rapid heartbeat; the feeling you get before a presentation or when you’ve just witnessed something threatening. While this is true, chronic anxiety causes individuals to retreat from the world due to its perpetual stimulus.
In 2012 Katelyn was hospitalized overnight following a suicide attempt in her dorm at Griffith University. She says she remembers entering the Princess Alexandra Hospital alone and scared, that it felt like a complete erasure of her humanity. She was 18 and locked inside a ward she describes as a dark fish-bowl. On the other side of the glass she could see the nurses ignoring her calls for attention and to phone her mother.
Katelyn says her anxiety continues to intrude on her ability to feel comfortable in large crowds or attend interviews. It’s a constant battle with herself and the desire to flee a given situation. These sensations are exacerbated during periods of depression, where she finds it difficult to eat, clothe and even bathe herself. Self-care, she says, goes completely out the window. The hardest thing, though, is the pressure to “push through” and pretend that everything is fine.
When efficiency is prioritized and ‘normality’ is the only digestible disposition, it can be hard to share the way you feel with those around you, especially in the workplace, even it’s vital for your own well-being.
Regan Grieves was an NRL North Queensland Cowboys under-20s player, a promisingly young athlete and a good friend. He was a perfectionist and wanted to become a dentist later in life. He loved cats, but kept that to himself. On Christmas Day 2014, Katelyn said she could sense something in Regan’s demeanor that she recognized in herself, a sort of aloof sadness. She says she asked how he was doing during lunch, but was brushed off with a “fine”. He left shortly after. By Australia day, 2015, Grieves had taken his own life in a park in Mackay.
His mother Angela Grieves, says he was the happiest he’d been in a long time, she says she thinks it’s because he knew the stressors would soon be over. He was 18 years old.
Within 24-hrs two young men had taken their own lives, Regan Grieves and Hayden Butler. In total, six NRL players had suicided since 2013: Ray Ertl, 21, formerly of the Melbourne Storm’s junior side; Francis Winterstein, 19, of the Brisbane Broncos; 20-year-old Mosese Fotuaika of the Wests Tigers and Grieves, Butler and Alex Elisala , of the Mackay Cutters.
These events prompted the NRL to formed an ‘urgent’ special committee to address the way the game handles and monitors mental health issues, specifically within the under-20’s. The question is, with so many struggling, was it invisible or was it ignored?
Angela Grieves, Regan’s mother, is now a staunch advocate for mental health in Mackey and Townsville. The last line of Regan Grieves obituary read ‘No flowers by request, donations can be made to R U OK?’
James’ first memory of mental illness goes back to his mother while growing up in Scotland. His mother had myxedema, synonymous with severe hypothyroidism. Living with this condition meant she was in and out of hospital, inclined to periods of severe depression and was treated with Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) at the time. He recalls early memories of going to hospital with her while she was administered ECT. The experience of being in the room, he says, has stayed with him.
James has since migrated to Australia and raised six wonderful kids. Two of his eldest boys, Fergal and Taras, both suffer from a complex mental illness (CMI) - Schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is a condition that disrupts functioning within the brain, associated with psychosis, hallucinations, periods of diminished expression and disordered thinking and perception. Schizophrenia is largely misunderstood; one of the biggest problems facing people with Schizophrenia is the on-going stigma that they experience in the community, legal and healthcare system.
There’s an insidious public perception of violence in people with schizophrenia, exacerbated through film and TV depictions of psychosis - think The Shining or Fight Club. This causes many people to react hesitatingly or judgmentally when they learn a person has a psychotic illness, leading to further isolation from the broader community.
Being a carer, James says, means you take on an advisory role, constantly shuffling your life around to support the ones you love. It’s a tricky feat at times, but more so is living in and out of hospitals. Both Fergal and Taras have spent formative years in hospital and, at times, have become so accustomed to life within that it’s hard to exist outside; they miss their friends and find it difficult to adjust to the new routines.
Lack of care and knowledge within mental health institutions and the community has been widely reported and that those working within hospital are, at times, under-qualified, over-worked or likely to used restrictive methods. When mental health is underfunded by the government and community-based models are increasing dropped, it is hard to ensure that care is delivered in safe environments.
In James’ experience mental illness and law rub together in impossibly complex ways. His eldest, Taras, has often turned to alcoholism to subdued his restless mind, and has recently found himself at Long Bay Correctional Facility – one of Australia’s hardest prisons, after an incident at Goulburn Valley Area Mental Health Services, which eventuated with Taras hitting a night-shift security guard after they handled him roughly.
The question here isn’t if Taras is right or wrong, rather it is are there effective measures put in place to protect both patient and guard? James is adamant that the night-duty guards are ex-police officers, and although it’s difficult to confirm , we only have to remember the events at Don Dale or, more recently, at Lismore base Mental Health Facility to understand the possibility of such a claim.
What occurred for Miriam Merten at Lismore based Hospital in early May, 2017, is an example of overburdened staff and an under protected patient. When events like this occur, people lives are irrevocably damaged, or worse, lost.
We are dealing with people’s lives and their struggle to adjust to the demands of contemporary society. The most common societal misconception is to blame the individual for being ‘sick’ or ‘unmanaged’, which highlights the public’s tendency to fall back on reductive biomedical conceptions of wellness, “it’s OK, he/she is on their meds”. This ongoing reduction of what it means to experience or live with mental illness continues to stifle conversations on the subject, creating shame for the individual and the family, and limits our ability to have productive national conversations.