We Need to Talk


Today is World Mental Health Day.

For every person who is or has experienced a mental illness or anxiety disorder - and estimates range between one in five to one in four people experiencing a mental illness or being affected by anxiety during their lifetime - there is a circle of people who are connected to them, love them, and for whom mental health has a big impact on their life as well.

I know this because I'm one of those inner-circle people. I was 18 when my mum had her first episode. There had been police cars, panicked phone calls and a rush into what was then Dax House, I was told. For me, it started with the profoundly dislocating experience of seeing your mother - the keeper of the family order and general organiser of things - in a padded room, crying and begging to be released. 

I started university in Melbourne the next day, and I knew I was barely taking in an experience that had been at the centre of my world, until the day before. I felt numb and more than a little lost.

The days turned into weeks and I got used to the sinking feeling that came with hitting the button for level 6 on the hospital lift. I became attuned to the faces and body language of the other patients on the ward; the zombie-like shuffling of the heavily medicated, the angry stares of the paranoid, the yells, the quiet tears, the rocking, the constant motion. I even had a favourite, a quiet older man, who would play billiards (without a stick) for hours, rolling the balls into the sockets. Dressed in a suit, clean and groomed, he was an anomaly, until you noticed he wasn't wearing shoes.

Then there was the things that I never got used to. The violent outbursts. The teams of male nurses crash tackling a patient, needles at the ready. On a few occasions that patient was my mum. And the new friends Mum made on the ward. Anyone who has spent time around an acute mental health ward will know what I mean.

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I don't think I'll ever forget the funny moments too. Whispering behind a paper serviette because Mum thought the sprinkler heads in the ceiling were cameras, that 'they' could read our lips as we talked; or the time Mum announced, firmly and with every appearance of lucidity, that she was giving me the house because I would need it, because I was pregnant with twins. The last one had the nurses on the ward wondering whether or not to congratulate me, the story had my friends in tears laughing.

But most days it was sad.

We had diagnoses ranging from manic depression to bi-polar disorder and, eventually, schizoaffective disorder. There were so many different medications that didn't work, others that caused side effects Mum still lives with today, and then there were the medications to treat the side effects of other medications.

When nothing seemed to be working, I was called in to the hospital for a meeting. One of the psychiatrists treating Mum was suggesting electroshock therapy. When I refused the doctor smiled and said he didn't need my consent, which he didn't, because my mother was a Ward of the State. After I said I would take this conversation to the media and push our case though the health system, he just looked at me, closed the file and walked out of the room. The subject was never raised again.

I heard some awful stories on the ward.

This became a kind of normal, albeit one weighted down with a grief I didn't have time to deal with and a sadness that was never far away. And for eight years I lived just waiting for the next 'here we go again' phone call.

This was more than two decades ago, and over the years we have seen mental health services change significantly, from what felt oh-so-close to One Flew of the Cuckoo's Nest and only a small step up from an asylum, to individualised treatment, new medication regimes that reduced the level of sedation and a new facility in the Swanston Centre. We got to the know the mental health staff at the hospital and in our local community mental health team and we knew the routine that came with the next episode. Call triage at the Swanston Centre, hide the knives and any other potential weapon, pack a bag. Try to get Mum to come into the hospital with us, which never worked, but we got used to that too. Call the police, who were extraordinary and could always get Mum to go with them calmly, although never with her shoes on...

In the end, after trying pretty much every antipsychotic available, there was one that worked. Mum hasn't had an episode for well over a decade. She lives on her own, manages her medications with regimented discipline and has built a life that works for her. The voices were still there for years, and would pop up to startle us every now and then, and the restlessness was less severe but still there. Mum still rocks if she's anxious and anything out of her usual routine makes her anxious.

On a plane trip for my brother's wedding, I had to book Mum and Dad (who have been amicably divorced for a long time now) on a different part of the plane from where I was sitting with hubby and our kids. Dad's face said it all (sorry Dad, better you than me). When we landed, Mum was panicking about collecting the bags. My hubby, who has always managed Mum's ups and downs with a calmness that alludes me, took her aside and pointed to the signs directing passengers to the baggage claim. Off she went, and we took our time following, knowing she would be right next to the baggage carousel, telling everyone around her where we had been, why, how worried she was the bags had been lost, asking what we would do if they didn't arrive, and filling them in what her kids did for a living, how many grandchildren she had and how much she hated flying.

As a family, we came through it okay. A bit dented, far from unscathed, but thankfully okay. And in a way that may have been because Mum's illness was so severe.

While we went straight to the head of the admissions queue, I saw too many terrified families being turned away because there simply wasn't a bed. These were often the parents of teenagers, kids not a lot younger than me. Their despair was heartbreaking.

Every time I hear about a family or a friend losing someone to suicide, the emptiness of that grief and sadness rises up again. Every time I hear someone share their experience of mental illness, I want to stand up and cheer, because when mental illness overwhelmed my family it just wasn't talked about, let alone understood. Having to explain, again, the yes I was sure the Mum wasn't just going through menopause was exhausting.

We still have so far to go when it comes to really managing mental illness well. But every time someone talks about it, every time we share a story, we take a small step towards making it better.

So, whatever your experience of mental illness is on World Mental Health Day, share it with someone. And if you think you might need help, even if it's just the quietest of feelings, reach out, pick up the phone, go to see your GP. You will be helping more people than you know.

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