We're often told to speak about our problems. People say that a problem halved is a problem solved, but that overlooks the fact it's sometimes hard to realise there is a problem. Then speaking up is a whole other issue.
Last week was Mental Health Week around Australia. For this, support and advocacy group Headspace assembled a bunch of young people to talk about their experiences living with depression. We took the opportunity to ask some when they noticed they weren't feeling right, and then how they found the strength to speak up.
VICE: Hi Charlie, tell us about your experiences with your mental health.
Charlie: I first started struggling with my mental health when I was 19. I had moved interstate and started a university degree up in Queensland. When I moved interstate, things really really blew up. That was coupled with a number of life changes.
What sort of life changes?
My main struggles were with anxiety and OCD. I had been struggling for almost two years, and by that point I had started to feel depressed. I was starting to disengage to the point where I dropped out of uni. I remember waking up every morning before uni and hoping those intrusive, anxious thoughts would be gone. To wake up and still be feeling them was really disheartening. To be honest, it's really difficult to talk about.
Of course, only talk about the things you're comfortable with.
My mental health issues didn't start until about a year after I came out as gay. That was a really challenging time as well. At the time, it evoked a lot of anxiety. It revolves around this perceived shame. There's this ingrained stigma that it's a weakness to have a mental health issue. That's certainly how I felt. I didn't want my friends to see me that way.
What was the lowest point when you were struggling with your mental illness?
I remember having a panic attack in a uni lecture. I wasn't focusing on what was being said to me but solely what was going on inside my head. I had no idea where to go. I left in tears. I didn't want people to see me that way. I came out of the lecture on the verge of panic. At the time, I didn't know what these feelings were or where they were coming from. I was really scared.
Was there a moment you decided to seek help for your anxiety?
I remember calling my sister in tears and saying "I don't know what's happening, I feel really confused. I think I've got anxiety but I don't know why." She just said to me, "Charlie, would you like to talk to someone?" If she'd never said that to me then I don't think I would've considered getting help.
Why is that?
I just didn't think it was "bad" enough. I now know it's never too early to seek help.
How have you been feeling since?
I didn't really start making progress until I returned to Melbourne and started undertaking psychotherapy and medication. The first time I sat down and spoke to a psychologist she said, "I'm working with about 10 other clients who are in exactly the same shoes as you. They're doing really well now with the right support." I can't even explain how big a relief that was. If I could talk to myself three years ago I would tell him how good I'm feeling now. That's significant because I just didn't think I would ever get better.
Hi Sara, can you describe your experience with mental health?
My battle started in high school, but it built up over time. It took a long time for me to seek help so it just snowballed through my adult years. I had moments where I wouldn't be having problems but it would always come back because I never dealt with them properly.
What was going through your head at this time?
Well, I self-harmed a lot in high school. I also self-harmed once when I was overseas. It was an addiction; a kind of release. I never told anybody though. In high school people who self-harmed and told others were classified as 'attention seekers'. I didn't want people to pay attention to me. So I just hid it and it never got properly addressed.
What were you ultimately diagnosed with?
When I finally sought help and went to a psychologist, they diagnosed me with depression, anxiety, and stress. Being diagnosed was actually a big relief because I was able to look at the symptoms and relate to them.
When did it really come to a head?
I'd come back from living overseas and I moved back in with my parents. I was in such a bad mental state. My reality was so warped and so intense that I wasn't able to communicate with my family. I wasn't able to function as a human being. I eventually had to leave home. I didn't have anywhere to live but thankfully one of my friends let me stay with her.
What made you leave home?
I had to leave. The fighting was so bad. I couldn't be in that environment anymore.
What thoughts were you having during this time?
I only thought I wasn't doing enough and I wasn't being enough. I thought I wasn't good at anything. These thoughts just snowballed until I wasn't able to leave my room. I wasn't even able to verbalise what I was going through. So not only was unable to leave my room, I wasn't able to leave my head. That was dangerous.
Was there a moment where you decided to seek help?
If I was to say there was a single moment, it was actually when I moved out of home. I told myself, This is the only life you're going to live. You have so many dreams about what you want to do, so you've just got to do it. Instead of focusing on huge tasks—like getting a job or going back to school—I focused on the smaller things like waking up in the morning and making my bed. I did that for about a month.
I slowly added all these really good habits into my life. I can now wake up in the morning, have breakfast, make my bed, go to work, have a fulfilling day, and come home to my partner and the house I own. It's important to learn that there's always going to be really stressful situations in life. That's just part of being human.
Hi Rachael, can you tell me about the journey that led you here?
I first noticed something was wrong when I was about 12 or 14. Even after I spoke up about it at 16, there were several more years of not knowing where to get the right help. I just thought okay, I have a mental illness. This is the rest of my life. My life is gonna suck because of this.
What were you diagnosed with?
I was diagnosed with bipolar, but I also experienced anxiety and depression. I get a lot of feelings of anxiety in my everyday life, in going to work, in going to the shops, in getting a bus ticket. I get anxiety that makes me physically sick. I'll also get periods of depression and mania that last a couple of months. Sometimes they're absolutely unbearable.
When were you diagnosed with bipolar?
When I was 16. That's when I had my first really bad depressive experience. I don't want to go into details, but it was January 2009 when I first attempted suicide. Thankfully my parents were able to find me, take care of me, and take me to the hospital. The morning after I finally spoke them and said, "Something's actually wrong here. Let's deal with it." That's when I went to a GP for the first time and got my diagnosis.
That must have been awful, what was that experience like?
I was feeling a type of depression I've never felt before. I was feeling like life was never going to get better for me—this was as good as it was ever going to be. I didn't want to live the rest of my life this miserable.
Do you feel your suicide attempt was that the lowest point during your struggles with mental illness?
No, that was just the start of it. I knew I had to do something or else I wasn't going to keep living. I went to a psychiatrist and her prognosis was really bad. She said to me, "I'm really sorry, but you have a mental illness. You can't work, you can't study, you're never going to be a fashion designer like you'd always dreamed." That became a self-fulfilling prophecy over the next five years when things got a lot worse.
I dropped out of school and then TAFE. When I heard I was never going to do anything meaningful I just stopped trying. Over the next five years I developed a really bad dependency on alcohol. My lowest point was when I was drinking every single day to try and cope with what I was feeling. I just didn't see a future worth having.
When did you finally decide to seek help?
I went into a Headspace centre and told them what was going on. The first thing one of the doctor's said to me was, "You need to cut back on how much you're drinking." Up until that point I had no idea I was an alcoholic. I heard that and thought, How dare he! How rude of him to say that! I'm not that person! I had two weeks of denial in which I drank more than I ever have in my entire life. For two weeks I was miserable, even when I was drunk.
How did you manage to pick yourself up out of that?
At the end of those two weeks I was standing in the middle of Vivid (Sydney's Light and Music Festival) and I decided to tell one of my friends about it. She just looked at me and said, "I'm so glad. Let's go. Let's get help." I thought wow, this actually isn't the worst thing in the world. The moment I told her, I realised that as bad as the situation was somebody was there to help me make the most of my life. Lately, I've found those down periods are not as bad as they used to be. I can feel down but I can still get myself to work and be productive. Most importantly, I can still go out and see my friends, and laugh and smile.
If you're struggling with mental health please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800
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