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“One of the fundamental challenges in young people’s mental health care is based in the assumption that youth equates with health. ‘So unless the person is really obviously disabled, really obviously injured… there’s an assumption that person’s entirely well.’

I was shocked. I’d never connected these dots. Health and youth are so inherently linked. And a disruption in the link adds a new, complex dimension to the prevention, identification, intervention and treatment of young people with mental health challenges.”

At Connect 2014, a national youth mental health conference organised by Young and Well CRC (where I am currently an intern), I was given the opportunity to interview a man at the forefront of Australia – and the world’s – mental health sector.

Professor Ian Hickie is pretty much a guru. He works in research at the Brain and Mind Institute, and is involved in the development of evidence-based services that can change the way young people and their communities approach mental health care. Professor Hickie attends all the conferences, meetings and interviews he can, to help spread the word on what we can actually do to make progress and help scores of young people nationwide.

In his formal addresses and the time I spent with him one-on-one, Professor Hickie communicated a sense of hope regarding the future of Australia’s young people and their relationship with themselves, their health, their carers, and their world. He offered many insights into the potential for social media, apps and digital technology to become keystones in mental health care, and spoke of the challenges health care professionals are facing in relation to these changes.

Young people are healthy, aren’t they? We’re nimble, we’re free, we’re thrill-seeking, happy. If we fall down, we get back up. Resilient creatures, we are. Or so the story goes. So when something challenges that status-quo, sometimes we and those around us don’t know how to react.

I learned so much at Connect 2014, and would do the experience a disservice to try and reproduce even some of it here. But my interview with Professor Hickie, published on Young and Well CRC’s website, will give you a glimpse of what I was a part of, where we’re at with young people’s mental health care, and where to go from here.

If you want to follow (or relive) Connect 2014 in its entirety, you can also view the Storify summaries.

“We have so many opportunities to transform health care to a model where the individual is at the centre, and the clinician is a consultant – is complementary – but not in control.

Together we can develop a system of care that will respond, educate and serve all young people in meaningful and respectful ways. And that will really change our mental health.”

I had barely heard of the disease before researching for this piece.

It’s horrible.

Imagine having a disease that not even the government of your own country recognised as a legitimate illness…

Read my piece for the Modern Woman’s Survival Guide on Lyme Disease here.

Despite its prevalence in our community, the stigma associated with having a mental illness is evident and challenging for those with mental health struggles. Similarly, I am aware that many people are self-conscious about seeing a therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist/counsellor/social worker or other type of mental health professional, despite their services being available for a multitude of issues, conversations and conditions. It’s a shame that this stigma is so prominent as I believe the benefits of seeing some kind of mental health professional are numerous and do not just pertain to those with a serious mental health condition. Therapists are available for individuals, families and couples who just want someone to talk to, to listen to their stories, provide them with a sounding board and commonly, some feedback as to how to proceed, what to tackle next, or how to work with a troubling situation, person or circumstance.

It is with this sentiment that I wonder whether the language we use is a significant contributing factor preventing more people accessing and seeking out these kinds of health services. When we have a sore back, we have no trouble going to the doctor and asking for a referral to a chiropractor, or seeing a teacher of the Alexander Technique for some help with postural realignment and lifestyle changes. When we have a sports injury, we see a physiotherapist, or perhaps, someone even more specialised. Generally, we seem to have no (internal) trouble with seeing a podiatrist, dermatologist or occupational therapist. So then why have we, collectively, created an invisible barrier barring us from seeking and receving guidance and help for what is intrinsically associated with what is arguably our most vital bodily organ, our brain?

Each week, I attend a range of appointments. This is not unusual for any of us lucky enough to live in a developed society with relatively easy and cost-friendly access to a range of health services. However, I’ve noticed that, at least until recently, I felt some sort of shame saying to others that I had a session booked with my psychiatrist, and instead of just saying so, I would omit the ‘location of difficulty’ or ‘source of stress’ if you like, and just say I had ‘an appointment’. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with that, and privacy to such an extent should be our right. Except the problem arises with the emotional guilt or side-effect associated with that omission, and I believe is comes from the stigma we as a society have attached to mental health.

Unfortunately, those receiving care for their mental health are often referred to, and immediately though of, as having a mental illness or mental disorder. For some, this is appropriate and true and I am not saying these terms should not be used, per say. Rather, I question; is it possible that due do these terms so often being used interchangeably, we are in fact, unintentionally, reinforcing that stigma and subsequently preventing ordinary people from seeking out mental health services? That people won’t see a therapist because they don’t want to be thought to have a ‘mental disorder’?

So, I guess I am kind of addressing two separate, yet interrelated, stigmas: one with diagnosed mental illness, and another with mental health care in general. I believe that neither are justified and both should be dispelled, but maybe starting with the latter will help to lift the stigma from the former. And to do so, I suggest the following:

Let’s change our language. Let’s start referring to ‘mental wellbeing’, adding a positive connotation to the world of mental health care. We know that to achieve optimal health we must strive for a state of complete physical, social and mental wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (WHO, 1946), and as such, are entitled to and worthy of receiving assistance and professional care for all elements of our wellbeing.

If you’re going through a series of life changes, you’re in an interim phase between jobs/houses/relationships, you’re needing some guidance, or would just like an impartial, in-judgemental face to talk to, seek out a professional to provide you with that support. You may not need ‘help’, you mightn’t be in a crisis, you might even be at the height of your career. But, by taking care of your mental wellness, you’re actively maintaing or working towards achieving your optimal health. And what better way to live your life than that?

I am writing a series of pieces documenting my thoughts on the lead up to the Australian Federal Election to be held on 7 September 2013. As a young woman, it will be my first experience of voting in a Federal election. I am not endorsing any particular party or politician. All opinions are mine unless stated otherwise, and while I will try to include honest information at all times, nothing should be taken as fact without further investigation. You can view my first post here and second post here.

Men in Black

Men in Black

With the election less than five weeks away, the Government and the Opposition are well and truly into their campaigning across the country. Both parties seem to be most concerned with the state of the Australian economy, and the action of the Reserve Bank today, has only given the economy a more prominent position in the debating arena. The Australian dollar is down, as are interest rates, but so is spending. Australians are saving their money, and as a result, the retail and business sectors as struggling. Shops are closing, private organisations are going into voluntary administration and liquidation sales seem to be on every second street corner.

Asylum seekers are making every effort to enter our country in the hope of a better future. Both major political parties are doing their best to ‘Stop the Boats’. I am currently reading Geoffrey Robertson QC’s Crimes Against Humanity. Robertson speaks in detail about the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the agency’s ‘hurculean task’ of supervising millions of asylum seekers and processing their claims.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’. Yet politicians are deeming these so-called boat people, ‘economic immigrants’, therefore denying the legitimacy of their asylum seeking.

It is interesting in the context of the 2001 Tampa case where Australia had the humanitarian duty to consider those on board the sinking boat’s claims to asylum. I am reading the 4th edition of Robertson’s book, published in 2012.

Robertson writes: ‘Many Asian countries refuse to sign the [International Convention on Refugees] and have become notorious for pushing ‘boat people’ back to sea as prey for pirates (Malaysia) or for turning a blind eye to the bribery which makes them a transit point for people-smugglers (Indonesia).’

He then comments on the Tampa case, saying the country bribed Nauru to take the majority of the refugees, which ‘may be explained by the fact that the government was in the throes of an election, and took the opportunity to boost its popularity at the expense of refugees and respect for international law’. Sound familiar? It’s great to see how much progress our nation has made in the name of equality, acceptance and diversity, (note the sarcasm).

Labor says it will increase the country’s refugee intake from 13,750 to 20,000 per year, inline with the recommendation of the Expert Panel of Asylum Seekers. The Coalition argues any increase in the quota is both unaffordable and would send the wrong message to people smugglers. The Greens say they will boost capacity of UN in Indonesia and Malaysia to speed up assessment and resettlement, yet as mentioned above, these countries have not signed the Convention, and thus are less likely to be open to much negotiation.

The Solomon Islands are also uninterested in being a part of the Australian Government’s new ‘Pacific Solution’ for processing and resettling asylum seekers. However, the country’s Prime Minister makes a good point: ‘We have to respect the choice of asylum seekers, and the choices that these people have made is that they want to come to Australia.’

The state of mental health care in Australia and across the world is dismal. This piece published in the New York Times is incredibly poignant in describing the urgency of improved and expanded mental health care in the States, but translates easily to other nations, including Australia.

Labor has the $2.2 billion mental health packages announced in May 2011. The funding aims to provide ‘genuine, practical and sustainable mental health reform to ensure that Australians living with mental illness get the care they need, when they need it’. Both the ALP and the Coalition will back EPPIC, an integrated and comprehensive mental health service model aimed at addressing the needs of people aged 15-24 with early psychosis, and promote the growth of treatment and opportunities for those with mental health conditions, including employment prospects.

However, progress and action in regards to mental health seems to be happening on a smaller, state-wide basis. New South Wales police will receive specialised mental health training from as soon as next month, while in Victoria, Labor’s mental health parliamentary secretary Wade Noonan has said ‘Our acute mental health services have reached breaking point under the Napthine Government, which increases the risks to both staff and patients’. In a similar response to assaults on nurses, the ACT government will speed-up the timetable to build Canberra’s first secure mental health unit after receiving Opposition support for the proposal.

Yet despite all of this, Former Australian of the year Pat McGorry, Brain and Mind Research Institute head Ian Hickie, and former chairman of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, John Mendoza, have today called for and end to political talk without subsequent action and voiced concern that neither parties had ensured adequate funding for mental health.

Tying two issues into one, the Greens will commit to setting up an independent panel of medical and mental health experts to monitor asylum seekers sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru under Labor and Coalition policies, after reports of suicide threats, hunger strikes and severe trauma amongst asylum seekers.

Of course, there are other significant issues and policies in this year’s federal election including education, jobs, a price on carbon, transport, and DisabilityCare. The ABC is hosting an educational tool called Vote Compass, that is designed to help you ‘discover how you fit in the Australian political landscape’. By answering a few short questions, you will be given a numerical and visual representation of how your values and interests sit in comparison with those of the major political parties. You can find Vote Compass here.

Additionally, make sure you’re enrolled to vote. You must be enrolled by 8pm on Monday 12 August. Visit the Australian Electoral Commission here.

For the past three years I’ve had trouble with accepting gifts, particularly for my birthday. I’m not sure exactly the reasons behind this but it must stem from feelings of unworthiness, wanting to be small, discrete and invisible. I suspect this has been a symptom of my eating disorder and co-morbid conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Yesterday, I opened three years worth of birthday cards and presents. It was incredibly overwhelming and took a great deal of time. It was hard to accept so much love in one go after I’d been avoiding it for so long, but it does prove that even if you’ve been out of the social loop for some time, people don’t forget you.

Depression manifests in different ways, interrupting the lives of each individual it plagues. Yet, it is not uncommon to feel flat, numb or distant from everything that is going on around you.

Unfortunately, while depression is relatively well known and to and extent, understood, it is too often trivialised by those having a bad day or people who are frustrated and unmotivated. Subsequently, those experiencing genuine bouts of clinical depression feel ashamed or silly to be struggling with the disease. In a piece published by the Modern Woman’s Survival Guide today, I wrote about the misuse of the word depression and the trivialisation of the condition. You can read it here.

The truth is, it is likely that someone close to you is in the throws of depression. Be there to support them. They are unlikely to ask for help but just having you by their side will provide them with some solace and peace, a welcome antidote to the dark waves crashing heavily in their mind.

Thank you to all those who have done so for me.

I have been stuck at the age of 16 for four years and despite the passing of the days, I’ve not become any older. Remaining four years my junior has deprived me of life opportunities and experiences typical of teenage and young adult life. It has prevented me from living like my friends do; drinking, going out, meeting boys and having fun with my friends. It has challenged my ability to enjoy being with other people including family and friends. If I gave up my eating disorder, I would be able to socialize more. I would be more open and able to take up opportunities and possibilities that may come my way in terms of socializing, academic pursuits and other activities.

I have been living an isolated, lonely life, far from others and their experiences. I have been completely disengaged and disturbed by my own thoughts and subsequent actions. I have felt guilty upon eating anything outside my minutely planned meals and struggle even with going out for breakfast. I have found it hard to look at the food in front of my without thinking about where it will be found later, located on a certain part of my body. These payoffs are working against me fully and completely. All the payoffs are negative for ESTHER. The only positive payoffs relate to my eating disordered self, where I feel as though I am in control, have control, have tight reigns over my appearance and my lifestyle. In reality, I don’t. It’s Ana. Ana has held her grip on me for years and years now and it is finally time I let go.

Call me crazy, call it what you want. But you have no idea how tough this shit is until you’ve experienced it yourself. And I would never wish this upon anyone.

Tomorrow, I turn 20 years old. And I am home. So I’m going to do it for myself. I can’t deserve this life of shame, heartache and pain. I deserve to be happy. I need to, and everyone should stop worrying about how thin your legs look. It will be hard and extremely challenging but in the end, it will be worth it. Clothes are supposed to FIT. They are not meant to be loose or baggy. They are meant to show off healthy curves and a shapely body. Stick figures are not the ideal. I need to eat to nourish my body. I will eat to nourish my body and my soul.

I will be there to advocate for a better life for all those who suffer. I want to work to help others suffering from mental illness to have a voice, to speak up and to be heard. Reduce stigma and seek out a positive future. I’ve been told that it’s possible. And tonight, I finally believe that it is.

Start of a better life.

Start of a better life.

Today I Appreciate:

  1. Being with 16 other young women who are making a move on the tough ride over Humpday
  2. Getting back to sleep after an early wakeup
  3. Art Therapy
  4. Getting a headway with sorting things out for university
  5. Feeling heard
  6. Being cared for
  7. Having a warm bed to snuggle up in
  8. Messages and calls of hope from loved ones

Things I Could Do Without:

  1. Guilt
  2. Physical illness
  3. Slipping over in the shower and hurting my bum (TMI?)
  4. Self-pressure
  5. A poor and unreliable internet connection
  6. No Wifi
  7. My laptop battery’s ridiculously short life-span
  8. Ensure