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

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