From a young age I experienced physical symptoms of stress as a result of trauma from family and domestic violence. Though there were clear signs that something was going wrong, nobody intervened and doctors were slow to diagnose that I had mental health problems. And even then, they didn’t refer me to the sort of support I needed. The police would have been some of the first people to become aware of the experiences my family and I were having, and it would have been helpful if they were able to help put supports in place around me from an earlier age. Society really let me and my family down.
When I reached high school my mental health started to rapidly decline. After being in a small Catholic primary school, I went to a public high school, and was introduced to the internet, social media, and to a whole new range of people, along with hormones and the pressures of study. I started trying new ways to cope with all of the extreme emotions I was starting to experience, and I found a few not-so-productive ways to distract myself from the pain I was in.
When I think about what was helpful for me during my time at high school and the following years, it is often small moments with individual people that stand out, and when I started to think about what these moments had in common. It was peoples’ attitudes that made all the difference. When people put aside judgement and genuinely sought to understand what was going on for me, I felt safe enough to be brave and take steps towards regaining my mental health.
I encountered a lot of judgement and stigma, which came out in the language people used, and it makes all the difference to someone who is already struggling with their self-worth. Words like ‘lazy’, ‘attention seeking’, ‘dramatic’, and ‘selfish’, made me feel guilty, embarrassed, weak and ashamed. So I isolated myself, hid my symptoms, and resisted offers of support. Things that were said to me by emergency department staff (including doctors), I would never say to another human being, especially not someone who is vulnerable and seeking help. It is absolutely not okay to use guilt as a motivator. A guilt-trip is a form of emotional abuse. It causes additional harm and can set someone back for years. Of course, most of us experiencing mental illness are perfectly capable shaming ourselves without anyone else’s help.
This is especially relevant when it comes to self-harm. Even if half the people I came into contact with had an understanding of why people self-harm, it would have made seeking help a lot easier for me.
Attitude and language, when it is non-judgemental, can be a powerful tool in supporting someone who is struggling. On one occasion, when an ambulance was called for me, I felt very guilty and apologised to the paramedic for taking up his time. The way he responded will stay with me forever, and has often popped into my head when I have been struggling. He said that what I was experiencing was an emergency, just the same an asthma attack. He said that in that moment I needed and deserved their attention and time just as much as anyone else. He helped me see that I was a valuable human, and that my experience was valid. Within a very short time, I was able to feel in control again, and was well enough for them to leave me to get on with my day (with the support of my family who were with me). I had tried to give him my power, and he didn’t take it from me.
The ongoing supportive relationships with workers and psychologists has played a huge role in learning and developing of new skills early in my recovery journey. When time was taken to build good relationships, I felt more able to trust and to be challenged. When conversations were held in parks, on the beach, or whilst walking or driving, I felt more relaxed and could more easily recall these conversations later on.
Being properly diagnosed was one of the best things that happened to me on my recovery journey. I was living in Brisbane at the time and, after presenting at an emergency department, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and referred to dialectical behavioural therapy, which was extremely useful. It taught me about mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal relationships. It was also very helpful to have a diagnosis that I felt truly fitted my experiences. Until then, I had been very confused about why I felt and behaved the way I did, but this helped me to make sense of it and to realise that I was not alone.
A lot of things could have been done differently, beginning with peoples’ attitudes. Stigma needs to be addressed. And we need to move away from the old ways of doing things, putting more emphasis on building the community’s capacity to recognise and respond to when people are struggling. I am forever grateful for all the amazing people that have supported me along the way, and especially those who have held space for me when I was in my most vulnerable states. I hope that we can continue to find ways to improve the way that people with mental ill-health and their families and carers are treated.
Peer Worker, Wellways Northern NSW