People like us

Ever feel like you’re the only one going through this? We’ve asked people affected by complex mental health issues to share their stories. You’re not alone.

As a SANE Peer Ambassador, I’m so proud to be part of a national network of nearly 100 people who all share a common goal of reducing stigma and discrimination for those living with complex mental health issues.

I joined the Peer Ambassador program because I wanted to use my lived experience of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to help others living with complex mental health issues, and the people who support them. Through sharing my journey, I want to break down the stigma and talk about the impact that mental ill health can have on the lives of Australians. OCD is not a personality trait or simply another way of saying that you’re extremely tidy or clean, but a serious mental illness that up until recently silenced me in everyday life.

The training to become a Peer Ambassador was really special. It was the first time I truly realised the power of storytelling and connected with other lived experience advocates.

One of the best things was that I felt accepted for me, and that my story was valued. The level of understanding and support SANE has for my specific needs creates such a great space to be an advocate in. I truly feel like I am following a passion. The program has provided me with mentoring not just in my advocacy journey, but in everyday life. I previously took part in a campaign focussed on mental health in young adults called Be Kind to Your Mind. I was able to share my story in a way I initially thought I wouldn’t do, using short social media videos. The training around this campaign taught me useful skills in dealing with others’ opinions, not just online, but in any advocacy engagement. With every opportunity I have been involved in I’ve learnt new life skills and become more confident in expressing my story. Along with this, hearing the experiences of other Peer Ambassadors from across the country has provided me with a greater understanding of other complex mental health issues.

Sharing what happens to us when we experience illness, distress, stigma or trauma can be difficult. But there is such power in hearing someone’s candid, first hand experiences, which the program supports members to do in a safe and impactful way.

Today, because of organisations like SANE, there’s a lot more awareness of mental health issues, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to reducing stigma, increasing mental health literacy and help seeking behaviours.

As a young man in the sporting industry, talking about mental health can be seen as a weakness. But as I continue to develop my advocacy skills as part of the Peer Ambassador program, I’m finding that I’m having more and more positive conversations about what it means to live with a complex mental health issue and I’m challenging stereotypes of masculinity and emotional vulnerability. It’s so important, especially as young people, to challenge outdated views, stand up for what we believe in and be the change we want to see in this world.

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If there’s a central theme to the last five years for Cameron, it’s change.

He’s changed perspectives: there was a time when a diagnosis of schizophrenia eighteen years ago meant that his brain was ‘broken’.

In 2018 his participation in the SBS reality TV show How Mad Are You proved otherwise. Cameron was one of five people with a history of mental illness who was mixed in with five others for a panel of experts to observe. The aim was for the experts to observe and assess each person to determine who they deemed had mental illness. Cameron found the experience eye-opening.

“I thought that having schizophrenia meant that my brain was schizophrenic, but it’s not as cumbersome as that.”

How Mad Are You helped show Cameron – and the audience – that mental illness was not the whole picture to a whole person.

"Schizophrenia is just a part of my brain; my brain can function at a relatively normal level when it needs to. That’s something that’s given me a lot of confidence.”

He’s changed roles: becoming a dad brought with it new challenges and new rewards. Experiencing the happiness of being a family is a tangible reminder of what he has achieved.

Even so, life isn’t without its challenges.

“When you have a brain that is…against you 90% of the time it’s difficult to maintain your confidence. There's some very hard-wired difficulties with the way that my brain thinks that affect my confidence daily.”

One of the recurring troubles of complex mental health issues (CMHI) is the isolation. Finding others to talk with has been a challenge, and the fear of other parents finding out his diagnosis made the early years of fatherhood especially lonely.

“The isolation is a very difficult part of it and it doesn’t help when the illness rears its ugly head. And that’s just something that we have to get through as a family.”

This is when the SANE Forums can be most valuable. Something as simple as reading others’ posts can shorten that gulf of isolation and remind Cameron that there are other people out there whose experiences he can relate to.

More recently, Cameron’s changed minds. Induction as a SANE Board Director has brought with it the opportunity to go beyond telling his story. It’s meant having a seat at the table to say “this is what we should do”. This kind of lived experience engagement is a shift he’s noticed over the years.    

Ten years ago, it felt like people with lived experience of complex mental health issues were looking for ways to share their stories of mental illness in an effort to raise awareness and empathy in the wider community.

Nowadays, things have evolved to more than just sharing stories – it’s also about having the opportunity to create change. 

“It’s about more than the opportunity to say ‘hey this is what happened’. It’s about listening to us when we say ‘hey this is what we should do'.

We’ve come to a point where people aren’t just asking about how we can share our stories but about how we can change things.”

For Cameron, this is the new frontier for CMHI.

“The only way we're going to solve this and cure this is to go beyond people talking about their experiences…it’s about suggesting what we think might help people heal.”

 

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Suffering is not a sign of creativity, it’s a sign of illness, and no one should have to be ill to be counted an artist.

When I was 15, my friend told me I would become depressed later in life because, she claimed, all creative people suffer from mental illness. Five years later, my psychiatrist mentioned something similar. She said the link between creativity and mental illness appeared to be very strong — artists like Vincent Van Gogh probably suffered from bipolar disorder.

Mood disorders are apparently very common amongst us creative folk. The Sylvia Plath effect confirms this: it was a study analysing the correlation between mental illness and poets, particularly female writers and especially female poets like myself.

When you combine this information with the well-known stereotype of the ‘tortured artist’, and some internet culture that sees depression as artistic and suicidal ideation as beautifully sad, it is no surprise that I believed that in order to be an artist I had to suffer.

I was already suffering when I first saw images of self-harm alongside poetry online.

It seemed like a beautiful way to convey what I was feeling. I felt a sense of belonging. These people appeared to understand what I was going through and had similar artistic interests as I did.

This was then coupled with multiple people in my life joking about my ‘tortured artist’ lifestyle, that it was my destiny to see the world in a devastating way, to fuel my creativity. I began to believe them, not realising that this idea — that creativity can only exist in a worthwhile way if fuelled by mental illness — is a painfully harmful stereotype.

My condition gradually got worse and worse until I finally sought help. I thought what I was going through was normal. The online world told me that it was perfectly normal to feel miserable all the time, that my PTSD nightmares and insomnia were a sign that I was going to achieve great things in the world of writing and art.

My boyfriend eventually dragged me to get help, insisting that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal, that I needed help.

After seeking help, I began to go through the motions of recovery. I would attend my appointments, talk to everyone and anyone who would listen to me about my suffering. It almost felt like a badge of honour. Look how sick I am, doesn’t this mean I’m different, that I’m a true artist?

I got worse, despite how much time psychiatrists would take up. I started having psychotic episodes. And there was a small part of me, underneath the terror, paranoia and hallucinations, that relished the idea that I was ‘crazy’. The more I suffered, the more tortured I was, the greater the artist I must be.

I didn’t enjoy my mental illness and wished I could trade it for being ‘normal’. I’d rather give up my creativity than suffer. But I believed that if I was going to be a writer or painter, I had to put up with the side effects.

But the worse my depression, psychosis, dissociation and eating disorder became, the less inclined I was to make any art. I had no energy to cope with basics like showering, eating and getting out of bed, let alone the creative field. I just didn’t want to. I was less creative than I had ever been.

It wasn’t until I had a suicide attempt that I understood how unhealthy my attitude towards my mental health was. I had believed my illness was necessary to be an artist. This was a wake-up call. I decided that I had to address my relationship with my mental illness and want to recover. And so, I did.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve slowly and surely come to understand that illness should never be a prerequisite to any type of career. I have reassessed the ‘tortured artist’ stereotype. Since then I have been able to stop self-harming and I have gone on medication which has drastically improved my mental health.

I no longer believe that there is any correlation between mental illness and creativity. I would never wish the suffering I experienced on anyone, so why should I wish it upon myself?

Most importantly, I now have the time and energy to create. I have started writing poetry regularly and I am currently working on a book, as well as having taken painting courses at university. I have created more in the past 6 months than I did the entire time I was at my worst.

There is nothing in the world that could convince me to suffer for my art, and that is the way it ought to be.

'Be kind to your mind' is an initiative of SANE Australia supported by Future Generation Global, in partnership with batyr.

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Although being transgender isn’t a mental illness, many within our community do experience it. I am a trans man, meaning I was assigned female at birth but my gender is male. I’ve lived with several mental illnesses for over a decade, the worst of which is known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD.

Unlike PTSD, C-PTSD comes from prolonged and repeated traumas rather than a singular event. When I talk about my C-PTSD and trauma, many people presume this ‘caused’ me to be trans. In fact, I think it had a near opposite effect, and caused me to think I was cisgender (not transgender) for many years.

I grew up in a household of 6, with 3 brothers and heterosexual parents. My parents, my mother in particular, had high expectations of me. I always achieved well in school and was the ‘well-behaved’ child out of my siblings.

However, I also didn’t talk until nearly 3, had very limited social skills and an even worse ability to understand and regulate emotions. I couldn’t understand others’ experiences, and engaged in “odd” behaviours my mother didn’t like.

I had undiagnosed autism.

How my mother treated me because of my autism began to manifest as trauma. I lived in fear of the consequences for engaging in visibly autistic behaviours. I had to repress important aspects of who I was and force myself into acting for my mother’s pleasure.

This isn’t the extent of the traumas I have experienced, or even the full cause of my C-PTSD. But I do think it can explain why I felt so unable to express my gender and live authentically as myself.

FinnThe tipping point for it to all change was shortly after I came out as bisexual. My parents’ reaction was less than positive. My movements were restricted, my friendships heavily monitored. I felt like I had to lie to be able to continue to exist in that household. My current psychologist thinks I only got through it because I dissociated my entire teenage years.

Despite the dissociation as a coping mechanism (albeit an unhealthy one), I eventually became so overwhelmed by my mental illness I knew I had to seek help.

A teacher at school was the person I went to. She was the only one I felt I could talk to, even though the conversation brought me to tears. I know I would have never gone to her if it wasn’t for her explicitly telling us that we could speak with her about any mental health concerns.

Because of her, I was able to start seeing a psychologist. The psychologist immediately realised I was autistic, and in the second appointment she asked my parents to help me pursue diagnosis and psychiatrist support.

That was my last appointment with her. My parents forced me to cancel my future appointments – they didn’t want me diagnosed. It was devastating for me. I had done something extremely outside of my comfort zone and now it was ripped away from me.

It wasn’t all bad though, the psychologist’s opinion helped me learn and understand the symptoms of my autism. It helped me to understand that I subconsciously thought everyone’s experiences and thoughts were the same as mine. Through learning this, I realised how I felt about my gender wasn’t normal for “girls” and eventually I came to the conclusion that I am a transgender man.

Since then I have come out, started hormones and began living as a man. I still experience complex mental illness and I think I always will. Finding support as a now openly trans person hasn’t been easy, as many health professionals don’t understand trans experiences of mental health. Some even have the misled belief that you can’t be trans if you have mental illnesses or autism like myself.

I never did go back to my first psychologist, but by 19 I had finally found one who was perfect for me. I’m still seeing him 2 years later. Although we primarily work on my dissociation and trauma, I know I wouldn’t be comfortable seeing him if he didn’t accept me as my genuine self.

Symptoms of C-PTSD vary widely, but I primarily experience severe dissociation. I dissociate constantly and have for many years. It fluctuates in severity, so although I can usually function, there are times when I can’t carry out basic tasks like driving, talking or even eating.

It might not seem like my C-PTSD is particularly linked to being trans, but the two do interact. Existing as a transgender person can be exhausting. We face overwhelming degrees of abuse and assault. But even small acts throughout the day, like a thoughtless joke or an accidental deadnaming (calling a trans person by a previous name, a name that is ‘dead’ to them), can take their toll.

Being deadnamed or referred to as the wrong gender can cause strong feelings of discomfort. It can actually make me feel physically ill.

Thoughtless jokes, verbal abuse and all manner of things can cause strong emotional responses. Processing these acts is mentally draining for trans people in a way it isn’t for cisgender (non-trans) people because of the emotional responses they evoke.

This might not seem particularly related to trauma and C-PTSD, but it is. Managing symptoms of complex mental illness requires a lot of energy. With my dissociation, I have to force myself to concentrate harder, engage in grounding and mindfulness techniques and remember to do normally automatic tasks.

However, because of being trans, a lot of my mental energy goes towards navigating the world we live in. For days when I have used a lot of my mental energy dealing with small acts of intentional and non-intentional transphobia, I won’t have as much capacity to manage my C-PTSD symptoms.

FinnAt my worst, I’ve lost an entire fortnight of memory but managed to function to some degree. Another time I was completely unresponsive for over an hour, which I have no memory of.

Being trans also makes accessing mental health support more difficult. Many health care professionals lack understanding of how to support trans clients. So instead of getting support, I have had to spend entire sessions with professionals explaining language use, doing trans mythbusting, educating on mental illness in the trans community and explaining how experiences of prejudice can negatively impact mental wellbeing.

I’ve had health care professionals refuse to acknowledge my gender and experiences, and others outright tell me they can’t see me because ‘I don’t know anything about transgenders.’ These experiences make health care not just inaccessible to trans people, but just the act alone of attempting to get support is draining.

Despite how difficult accessing appropriate health care felt, I knew I needed support. Reaching out to the wider trans community via social media, I was able to find both a GP and clinical psychologist who have been not just accepting, but knowledgeable and compassionate towards trans issues.

I’ve received their support for over two years, and the help I have gotten so far has allowed me to reach a point of my life I never thought I’d make it to.

'Be kind to your mind' is an initiative of SANE Australia supported by Future Generation Global, in partnership with batyr.

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The most effective tool I have is my voice. Speaking out when things are troubling should never be ignored or disrespected. All of our experiences are valid and hold powerful emotions that need to be held gently. Using your voice could potentially help someone else in need. It could also save your life.

There is no easy way to explain the devastating and crushing grip my mental health has had on me, the relationships that have been severed, the misunderstandings that have occurred, and the pain that has spread through my mind.

KaitlinI was four years old when I began to show signs of certain disturbances through acting out and self-harm when I was alone. I was under siege by something invisible that I couldn’t explain. I managed to ‘settle’ these behaviours and emotions by hiding in my cupboard or under my bed where no one could see or reach me.

Now I wish more than anything that I could go back and hold that girl tight, tell her not to be afraid and to speak up.

I was surrounded by a loving family who gave as much as they could, but mental health was never a subject for dinnertime conversations. Everyone kept their feelings to themselves and I was taught at a very young age to ‘suck it up.’

To the outside world I seemed ‘normal’, perhaps just ‘quirky’, but the pain was at times completely unbearable. With three suicide attempts by the age of 22, I was convinced that I deserved all the hurt. I also thought everyone was experiencing the same things as me, so I never spoke up. I never wanted to burden anyone with my secrets.

I decided to reach out to my mum.

She was the one I was trying to protect the most from my mind but, in the end, she saved my life. Slowly she began to put the pieces together.  Mum has never laid down any form of judgment; she has always been kind. Her support and guidance allowed me to slowly open the door to my world and let her take a look inside. With loving eyes, she always reminds me ‘everything will be okay.’

Even when she was told that I had attempted suicide, she knew I hadn’t intended for it to go that far, that I was just hurting. Her strong hand reaches out to pull me back down to earth. Always.

Kaitlin
Over the past ten years there have been multiple hospital interventions. Doing CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy) has been an absolute life changer. The way it’s executed through the team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and nursing staff has helped me understand that you can deal with your emotions and channel certain behaviours into healthy tasks and activities.

It has allowed me to slowly begin my journey to a form of comfortable recovery, but most importantly, it has allowed me to trust people again. I have learnt that I am in total control of my own mental health.

Writing became my therapy and I learnt that once it was on paper, it was mine.

Kissing the scars of my soft skin, the sun began to shine through and release some of the darkness that had been confined so tight within. The corners of my mind that bled so much honest pain were starting to see the light.

My family have struggled to be on this journey with me, but finally at the age of 27 I have learnt to be open with those who surround me with constant love, hope and acceptance. I have begun to share the secrets that have consumed my life, and speaking the truth of their existence has lessened the pain.

'Be kind to your mind' is an initiative of SANE Australia supported by Future Generation Global, in partnership with batyr.

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Throughout our lives, we will identify with many different groups. We apply many labels to ourselves to help understand who we are and what we do.

For example, only recently did I start identifying as a Spice Girls fan. I’d gone nearly 26 years without really listening to a single Spice Girls song but a colleague mentioned how great they are and now I’m hooked.

Of course, identity is more important than ensuring our music taste is on point! It defines so much of who we are and, more importantly, who we think we can be. Our identity guides the choices we make, the people we spend time with, and the future we see for ourselves.

Throughout my life, I’ve given myself many identities. Growing up gay and queer in a regional area is not easy. The only times I heard the words ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ was when they were deployed as a derogatory label in the schoolyard. I was scared of coming out to my family – not because I was worried they would disown me – but because I was concerned it would negatively impact my ability to support my mum. Luckily, my mum was very accepting of my sexuality (though she still holds some grave concerns about my vegetarianism!). My other identities range are nerd, Whovian, student, mentor and, obviously, Spice Girls fan.

The one identity – one label – that describes much of my lived experience, but that I’ve never been totally comfortable with, is that of ‘carer’.

Identifying as a carer never quite felt right for me. For the first several years of providing care to my mum, who lives with complex mental health issues, it didn’t even cross my mind that I was a carer. When it did cross my mind, it felt like a trying on a pair of pants after indulging in a whole cake … it just didn’t fit!

The ‘carer’ identity felt wrong because the narratives I associated with the word did not mirror my own lived experience. For me, a carer was usually someone old (and caring for someone younger), someone caring for a person with a physical disability, or someone who cares for others in a professional capacity.

This script (as I think of it), was not my script. If I was in a movie and I was given the ‘carer’ script, I would probably think there had been a casting error. I saw myself as more of a supporter, an accomplice in the fight back against whatever challenges were facing my mum at any given time. If the demons were coming, I would be standing by her, ready to fight.

Not identifying as a carer was hard though. It made it nearly impossible to explain my situation to others. It was challenging to gather support and build the networks I needed to help me along the journey of supporting my mum. How could I even begin to explain the situation to my friends and colleagues?

Tim

At the time, I also felt guilty describing my situation as a caring because I felt like it devalued my mum’s strength and resilience.

On the other hand, ‘supporter’ does not adequately convey the challenges I encountered on this journey.

Sadly, there have been many times when my suspicion that others would not understand my situation was confirmed. For example, the number of barriers I faced throughout my education was ridiculous! The simple act of getting an extension on assignments was a nightmare.

If you know anything about modern university life, you’ll know the robots are taking over! Everything is digitised, including the process of getting an extension for an assignment. You have to locate an online form, meet all the requirements, tick the right boxes, send in the right evidence and then an administrator (or robot!) will magically grant you the extension or reject your request.

These forms and processes don’t really work when you’re caring for someone who is contemplating self-harm, and it’s taking all your emotional energy just to hold it together and provide them with support they need. There’s no medical certificates for when you’re having a bad day in your caring role.

Although when you’re enrolling for university, you’re asked many things about your identity – Do you have a disability? Come from a regional area? Are you an elite athlete? – there was never a point in my studies where I could easily let the university know I was a carer. Maybe I should have identified as an elite athlete because some days being a carer does feels like a marathon or obstacle course or synchronised swimming event! Try juggling caring, studying, working, and just being!

Now, what does this all have to do with my identity? Well, when all the processes and systems of the world don’t recognise your situation, and there is no reflection of your life in popular culture, you start to devalue your own lived experience.

I cannot tell you how many times I questioned my own value as a carer. It seemed the world did not recognise my situation. When I visited a school counsellor in the 10th grade, I was told ‘to just tell mum how I felt’, even though, at the time, my mum was in a near-catatonic depression. It made me feel like the world did not understand complex mental illness. It certainly didn’t understand that my identity as a carer was separate to my identity as son. This, combined with the deep community stigma towards complex mental health issues, made it challenging to reach out for help when I needed it most.

To bring this piece full circle, I want to quote the Spice Girls: ‘I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want.’

I want youth organisations and places where young people live their lives to hear my story and many more stories like mine. Our stories have not been told widely in popular culture.

There are so many young Australians who care for and support family members for a number of different reasons. Our circumstances are not, and have never been, taken into account in the policies and processes of schools, universities, workplaces, government and corporations. Even when processes do exist, they aren’t usually tailored towards the needs of young carers, and require the young carer to go searching in their ‘free time’ between caring, studying and working. Organisations and institutions need to actively reach out to these young carers and provide them with support.

Finally, to all the young carers out there – "Keep your head up high, don't you know you are the superfly, and that ain't no lie" (thank you Spice Girls)! Whatever label you choose to use, whatever situation you’re in, you are valued.

You are worthy of support and it is your right to demand it from society.

'Be kind to your mind' is an initiative of SANE Australia supported by Future Generation Global, in partnership with batyr.

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I am not bipolar. I have bipolar disorder. My diagnosis and my identity are linked only in so far as experiencing mental illness has contributed to my personal growth.

My perspectives have broadened, my empathy has grown and I have consolidated certain personal attributes such as resilience and confidence. I have also gradually created a toolbox — one that is instrumental to maintaining my mental health.

I wish the process had have been easier and quicker. But, at the end of the day all that matters is I now have it as I move forward with life.

TillyMy mental illness at times caused much distress. Since my first episode of illness, a gradual process of receiving professional help, reaching out for support around me, improving my own understanding and self-awareness, and developing a tool kit of self care and coping strategies has allowed me to evolve from struggle to recovery and ongoing management

I am able to live, enjoy and adventure in spite of having a complex mental illness.

My handle on my condition is strong. I experience warning signs of mania, including restlessness, erratic or racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping and urges to complete unnecessary tasks. Recently I reflected that, although I can identify them (an important step which itself took time to achieve), I was struggling to deal with them in the moment.

I decided to contact a psychologist for guidance around developing coping strategies and ways to approach calming these symptoms better. My GP set up the referral, commending my proactive choice to seek support even though my illness has little current impact on my day-to-day life.

I have learnt the hard way that reaching out for support early is crucial in staying on top of mental illness. A culture of help-seeking is vital for staying well.

When I was 17, my condition surfaced for the first time. I experienced depression for several months. Among my negative thoughts was guilt — a feeling that I had no reason to be depressed and it was silly to feel this way. Consequently, I was too ashamed to tell anyone.

I had a friend who noticed I was withdrawn and quiet, which was unlike my positive, bubbly self. She asked me if everything was ok and said they were there if I needed to talk. That showed me that people did want to help. Though I chose not to open up, being approached was comforting.

TillyHowever, I struggled in silence instead of reaching out for help, and things went from bad to worse. I fell into a period of prolonged mania and this meant my behaviour changed in a way which was, at first, not overtly noticeable to those around me.

Suddenly things rapidly became more acute as I transitioned into a psychotic episode. I had severe emotional distress, exacerbated from experiencing visual hallucinations and my ability to function at school and home derailed. I was taken to the doctor, and subsequently hospital emergency on my GPs directive. From the psychiatric evaluations, I was admitted to hospital to begin my recovery.

My illness had become so bad others needed to intervene. I often wonder what disruption and distress to me, my family and others around me could have been avoided if I had have sought help when I was struggling with depression, or if I had understood the changes in my behaviour as concerning and spoken up.

The exposure to professional help began my road to recovery. Initially I lacked awareness of my mental health and the necessary tools of to manage my illness.

My mood was returned to a range which enabled me to function at home and socially, and to finish year 12 with a positive prognosis. I was transferred to a community team consisting of a psychiatrist and a counsellor for ongoing care. I started university and enjoyed beginning a new phase of my life.

I was taking medication that was being progressively lowered, but I was struggling to cope with warning signs as my mental illness again reared its head.

I experienced a relapse, but this was a constructive turning point in how I would handle my condition. It represented certainty and I learned of the permanency of my diagnosis. I became motivated to learn about bipolar, my own signs and symptoms and the coping strategies and self-care techniques I could use.

This nuanced understanding of myself, my illness and what tools worked for me have helped me manage my condition and live my life with bipolar having minimal impact.

I still see my psychiatrist routinely, though this is now infrequent, and I seek the support of those around me when I need it.

I have learnt to say no, to prioritise time to rest my body and mind, to implement a strong sense of routine and scheduling, and to ensure I sleep adequately. I have activities I know help me to relax, energise or burn off steam, and I know when I need to use these to change my current behaviour.

It took time to establish what methods worked for me. Combining these methods with new thought-based strategies that I am developing with my psychologist has, for now, completed my tool kit for managing my mental illness.

It may be in future that other things arise, and new instruments for coping may be added, or others taken away. I have established professional medical support, a help-seeking culture, medication regime, self-care and behavioural coping strategies which together ensure I stay at my optimal mental health as much as possible.

It was by no means an easy path, but it was an important one, for me and those around me. Now I have created my toolbox, I can take it anywhere, to use as needed to keep my condition in check in order to continue getting on with my life.

'Be kind to your mind' is an initiative of SANE Australia supported by Future Generation Global, in partnership with batyr.

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When I first started talking to people about having borderline personality disorder, it was hard to open up. I was trying to ‘be a man’ about it, and not show my emotions. It was usually at a party when I’d had a few drinks that I’d start to tell people. I started to drink a lot.

At the time, it felt like the best way to forget about my problems, but in retrospect I was trying to put a band-aid on a bullet wound. It just wasn’t going to work.

Things started to change for me when I was 16 or 17. I started not enjoying the things that I used to, like playing sport and hanging out with friends. I became scared in social situations and in big public places. At the time, I'd just come out of a relationship and I thought that was the reason I wasn't feeling good. After a while, I started realising that it wasn't that; something was actually going on and I needed to get help for it.

Before my diagnosis, my knowledge of mental health was limited to what I’d seen in the movies and the media. The thought of me having a mental health issue was terrifying. I thought, ‘I have a great life. Something like this shouldn’t affect me.’ I thought what I was going through went on in everyone’s life; that everyone felt this kind of day-to-day sadness.

I remember in my first year at university I was seeing all the people around me and just being absolutely terrified. I thought everyone was looking at me; I thought everyone was judging me. It felt like everything was being taken control of by this feeling. There was no time during the day where I could just forget about it. I’d be lying there at night just tossing and turning, and that would just stress me out more and compound the problems. It’s debilitating.

When I was diagnosed with BPD, I felt a sense of relief. The way I interacted with other people, the way I felt about relationships – it all made sense. I started to realise that I could be quite erratic.

When I was first put on medication, for once I felt like things were a little bit normal. And I remember thinking, ‘Is this what I’m meant to feel like? Am I meant to not feel terrible all the time and not anxious?’ It did take a bit of time to get there, but for once I felt like I wasn’t being plagued by my thoughts constantly.

When you have a mental illness, you want the negative feelings to stop, not your whole life. I’m 23, I recently graduated from university and I’m working. I have to take the good with the bad.

When those familiar feelings build up, I just try and distract myself. I try and play some sport, I try and put on a movie, and then I wait it out. I might feel a little bit better tomorrow. And if not, I know what’s available to me if things do get worse.

If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to get help. No matter how small you feel the issue is in your head. Although you may feel right now like things aren’t as good as they should be, they will get better. I’ve been there, a lot of us have been there. You don’t have to feel alone.

Declan is a participant in Young Faces of Mental Illness, a collaboration with SANE and batyr supporting young adults to share their stories. The project is supported by The Future Generation Global Investment Company. 

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I’ve always had a strong sense of identity and am quite strong willed. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 27, because I was so resistant to seeking help. I eventually found a psychologist because things were falling apart, and she just happened to be a self-harm specialist.

Being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder was really helpful. It was also a relief for my partner at the time. The diagnosis made a lot of sense as I’d never had anyone talk to me about trauma and the effect it can have. I wasn’t open to accepting the trauma. Where I came from, if they didn’t hit you, then it wasn’t abuse. I was so shut off.

Growing up, I was very angry and used to tell people that I didn’t have a problem, it was everyone else that had a problem. Because I was such a forceful and aggressive personality, there weren’t a lot of people who challenged me on that.

Being diagnosed was a helpful thing for me, but it took a long time to seek help.

The psychologist kept calling me until I agreed to come and see her one more time. She put up with a lot of challenging behaviour from me. It took us a long time to build trust, but once it was established, we had a great connection.

Becoming clean and sober has had a lot to do with my mental health recovery too. After I was diagnosed, I was drinking all the time, and took drugs.  My behaviour was not healthy. Getting well requires a whole life change. I’ve been clean for three years now.

I don’t have a problem saying that I have mental health issues.

My way of dealing with things is to take the part of you that other people might not understand, and educate yourself about it, bring it close to you. Accept it as part of who you are as a person, explain it and ask people to educate themselves. It’s an illness, one we fight everyday and we can be proud of that.

I’m the kind of person who stands up for what I believe in. I’m the same with my place in the queer community. I want people to understand that we are not any different and we all deserve equal rights, compassion and help with our challenges, whatever they may be. It important to me, however, to also highlight the higher rates of mental distress, trauma, self-harm and suicidality within the LGBTIQA+ community. We need to start addressing it, especially in our young rainbow people.”

I have had to do a lot of therapy to accept my self-harm scars. I would look down at myself and think, ‘No one is going to hire you when you have all these cuts.’ I would always be wearing long sleeves in summer. It took a long time for me to be able to take my cardigan off and be okay with showing my scars. People do notice them and now that’s okay, I invite them to speak to me about it.

Now I advocate for other people to accept themselves and their scars. For some people, I think that there can be something really powerful about seeing self-harm scars on a person who is doing really well in life. It shows where you’ve been and how recovery is possible. I hope what it says is, ‘Look how much I’ve struggled, and I’m still here.’

I make no illusions that everything couldn’t go wrong tomorrow. I was a drug and alcohol counsellor, and the recovery model used in the sector accepts that lapses are inevitable, and are part of the recovery journey. We take steps to make sure that those lapses are managed.

I haven’t self-harmed in years, but that doesn’t mean that I’m cured.


I have a beautiful friend with a mastectomy scar and I have so much respect for her survival. We often talk about how we both have battle scars and are warriors. I want the world to see our scars and realize that we are the same, both strong surviving women who have beaten the odds.

I see scars on other people, and I know how strong they are to have gone through ridiculous levels of suffering and they are still here, still surviving.

If you want to learn more or get help for BPD, check out these national services:

Project Air

Australian BPD Foundation 

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Growing up, I played a lot of sport and had a very big and loving family. But I began feeling overwhelmed by the world and where I’d fit in.

When you’re in your own mind as a kid, you think that everyone’s feeling the same way you are. I didn’t want to feel like I was different. It took a long time to come around to the idea that what I was feeling wasn’t normal.

I would be really tired all the time. I would isolate myself from everyone around me. I never thought that anything I was doing was ever good enough. I didn’t think that I would get anywhere and didn’t see the point in trying.

I started getting really bogged down by that and my mum knew from very early on that I needed help. And I was adamant that I wasn’t going to get that help.

I could get myself going when I was around other people, but as soon as I came to the safety of my home I would let go and fall apart. But eventually it caught up with me. I couldn’t keep up putting on an appearance all the time and eventually a few people started to notice.

I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and then later with bipolar II disorder. When I first got diagnosed with bipolar II, I was scared of it. It took me a really long time to come around to the idea that I wasn’t who thought I was. And to realise that a diagnosis wasn’t a definition.

I like the idea that when people see me, they don’t just see the bipolar. They see me as the Ali that they’ve always known, or the Ali that they will come to know. As opposed to ‘Oh, Ali who has bipolar.’

When I’m unwell, it can be very dark, very lonely and very still. You just curl up and feel like the concrete sets over your entire body. You can feel the cracks settling in.

Hope is a really important thing to get you through some of those really dark times. It’s important to appreciate it because I remember a time when there wasn’t any. And once you find it, it’s important to hold on. It will come, hope does arrive.

When you’re feeling down, it’s really good just to retreat to things that you know that you enjoy. Simple, easy, achievable things. Making sure that you are your true self when you’re by yourself, and you allow yourself to be just what you want to be.

Outside of family and friends, my support networks have been mainly professional support. I worked very closely with my GP to set up what I have now. I find that I don’t need to see them all that much, but it’s good to know that I have those things there if things start to unravel a little bit.

There are so many resources these days that people can tap into, it’s actually incredible. And a lot of online ones. Everyone has different experiences so I feel like the best thing for anyone to do is to find out what works for them. It does take time and it is hard work, but it’s worth it. It is worth it. And when you do get in a place where you do realise it is worth it, that’s a special moment.

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Living with OCD is a living hell. As a child, I felt I had to keep my family safe, but I didn't know why. If I made a mistake at school I had to rip the pages out and start again, or I felt something terrible would happen to someone I loved. Even though I knew deep down what I was doing didn’t make sense, I couldn't take the chance that somebody might die.

Leaving the house could take me two hours because I would check everything was off. My long-suffering husband had to reset the microwave, alarm clock and video recorder every night. I would boil everything before l cooked. It was just so time consuming. I was doing all sorts of things to keep my family safe and it would take up hours and hours of time.

People think it’s just about cleaning. They don’t understand the anxiety, and that’s the worst part. The thought is going round and the anxiety builds up — people don’t realise how awful that anxiety is.

People with OCD know that what we’re doing is irrational — that’s why we hide it. People will see some of our rituals but most of it is hidden. You look at the person beside you and they’re not washing their hands ten times or tapping the walls before they leave a room, but they may have OCD and they may be hiding their rituals.

Before I got treatment, my husband did everything for me. He’d help me shower, help me dress because I thought that even if I’d put my clothes on the wrong way somebody would die.

I didn’t manage my symptoms well. I let them run free unless someone was watching. Deep down we know what we’re doing is irrational, but you have to do it because you need to save somebody’s life or not get sick, or whatever your OCD thought is.

My husband suggested I see the GP when I was 28 years old as he could no longer live the way we were living. He was flicking through a magazine at work, read a story about people with OCD and thought, this is you! You’re doing what they’re doing.  We went to the GP the next morning. The GP said he’d never heard of it before.

Finding out what I had was incredible. It was life-changing. I had been seeing a psychiatrist for two years who never once mentioned OCD — so I got progressively worse.

Once I finally found out what I had, I did treatment every day for three weeks and spent two hours each day with the psychologist. We used to go to the funeral parlour, the hospice and the cemetery, to dispel that feeling that if I had anything to do with death, somebody might die.

I don’t know if I would have been so brave to go for treatment if I’d have known what I was going to have to have to do. Going to funeral parlours and cemeteries would have terrified me.

I’ve lived 28 years free of OCD. It’s still there though. I think it's like being an alcoholic — you might not have a drink for 30 years but you’re still an alcoholic because occasionally I’ll get an OCD thought. It doesn’t worry me, it doesn’t send me into rituals. But I think if I gave into it, it would all come back — it’s very, very strong.

But you can live really well if you get the right treatment for OCD. I got my life back after treatment, it was just amazing.

I stopped reading when I was about 16 because I’d get to the end of a sentence and think, ‘Did I stop at that comma? Did I say that word? Better read that sentence again.’ I could get stuck on that paragraph for a week.

After five years of treatment, I got a book for Christmas and I was sitting there, reading it and I started to cry. And my husband said, ‘Is it a sad book?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m reading. I can’t believe it!’ To get your life back, to get that treatment — it’s hard but it’s worth it.

Having recovered from OCD, my life is completely different. Prior to treatment I stopped socializing or having any sort of relationships. After treatment, I can walk out of that house without checking, I don’t have to wash constantly, I don’t have to be ringing up checking everybody’s health constantly.

I can go out, I have a beautiful daughter, we can go out to the theatre, I can make dinner — it’s really freeing. I can do things that everyone else does.

Tim

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A few years ago I attended an OCD support group where people would discuss their symptoms and talk about how they were going. One regular often had trouble explaining himself to the group. He would say ‘you’ll have to excuse me I’m competing with my OCD whilst trying to talk to you’.

This perfectly sums up the condition. The intrusive thoughts that define OCD are constant. They don’t take a break when you’re at work, with friends, on weekends or holidays. And sadly an obsession doesn’t go away after you’ve performed a physical or mental action, as is the common misconception.

As a seven-year old child at a Catholic primary school I was obsessed by the idea that I might go to hell. I’d repeat sentences in my head at ‘just the right speed’ and with precisely the right amount of emphasis on each word.

I’d also constantly analyse my behaviour to determine if I was a sinner and therefore going to hell.

At high school I would obsess about sexuality. Was I gay or straight? And how did I know? I also started to have obsessive thoughts about social interactions and what people thought of me. I guess that’s something we can all relate to.

Towards the end of high school and at university I had a lot of intrusive and obsessive thoughts about whether my clothes fit properly or if the sunlight or computer would damage my eyes. Between lectures I’d sit outside the Western General Hospital’s psychiatric ward thinking that if I just went inside they’d help me and these thoughts would stop.

I did eventually speak to my parents and was referred to a psychiatrist. This was an enormous help.

He told me not to engage in dangerous self-medicating behaviours liking drinking alcohol. Sadly, at 21 years of age, I didn’t listen. I tried to make the obsessive thoughts stop by binge drinking. I also took illicit drugs. But this didn’t work.

I was okay for a while until I developed the obsessional thought that some of the amphetamines I’d taken might still be in my mouth. The compulsion forced me to constantly lick my lips and check myself in the mirror.

It took two years of exposure therapy – trying to increase the time between thought and compulsion – to get the symptoms under control. This long and painful process finally lead me to taking my prescribed medication. In the 12 years since then, the obsessive thoughts haven’t changed all that much in intensity. I simply perform fewer compulsions.

Despite receiving the best treatment, my OCD and depression completely wore me out. In 2010, I stopped working for two years. I was completely exhausted and struggled to see a way forward.

Like many people I didn’t want to talk about my illness. But I had to. I started talking to friends and it helped. So then I also started talking to others with complex mental illness. Through continued treatment and talking to others I’m doing ok. Not cured – OCD is a chronic condition – but managing.

Having the courage to share those strange thoughts in your head is crucial to recovery, as is the support of family and friends, and the ability to talk openly and honestly about your illness.

Tim

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When I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia at 18, I thought that I’d be sitting in a room for the rest of my life. I thought that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything I wanted to do. I felt so hopeless and like everyone around me was giving up on me too, like nobody expected me to get better.

People think that if someone’s really unwell at one point, they can never recover from that. But, they can. I’m living proof of that. Still, I often feel like I’m taking one step forward, ten steps back, but when I take a step back at look at the big picture, I can see how far I’ve come. A bit over a year ago, I couldn’t even really go outside by myself, and now I’m doing things I never thought I could ever be capable of. I almost can’t believe it. It’s hard to look at myself positively, but if someone else were me, I’d think they were amazing.

My battle with my mental health started in high school. I struggled with depression and anxiety, but towards the end of school, I started experiencing something different. I didn’t really know what it was, and I thought that I could just ignore it. I moved out of home and started uni. I thought that I could leave everything that happened during high school behind me – that if I could just ignore everything going on in my head and try to push through, it would be ok. But it didn’t turn out that way.

I’d never lived out of home before. I felt isolated and alone, and I just couldn’t handle the stress alongside everything else going on in my head. That’s when things really took a turn for the worst, and I experienced my first episode of psychosis.

I felt like I was being watched all the time. I thought that someone was watching me through a camera in the air conditioning. I was completely paranoid. I couldn’t focus on anything or do my uni work. I heard voices saying that everyone hated me, they didn’t want me around and they wanted me to die. I became totally isolated.

I knew that I needed help – and on one level I did want help – but I also felt like I didn’t deserve it.

I remember the day when they told me I had schizophrenia. I didn’t know much about it at the time. I just knew all the stereotypes surrounding it. I was thinking ‘Does that mean I’m dangerous? Does it mean that they’re going to lock me away’. They just said it like it was nothing. But for me it was this huge, life altering thing.

There’s just not enough understanding, and so much stigmatisation surrounding this illness. People get all their ideas from horror movies. They can be really flippant, calling people ‘psycho’ or ‘schizo’. It’s a pretty scary illness , but it doesn’t make the people who have it scary people. We’re human, just like everyone else. We all want the same things.

I still experience psychosis, but I can manage it a lot better than I used to be able to. I understand what it is now and why it’s happening. I’ve learnt ways to help manage it, and I know how important it is to talk to people about what I’m dealing with, rather than keeping it all to myself.

I’m so passionate about sharing my story now, because if people understand what Schizophrenia is, it will make it easier for people to get help early. I want my story to show others that it’s not the end of your life if you’re diagnosed with schizophrenia.

I’m living proof that you can keep going and live a full life.

hannah and friends

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1983 sticks out to me. I did a really bad pre-season. I was down, I couldn’t train properly. I felt like I had a really bad flu. That was the start of my mental health problems, but it was decades until I was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder.

I got recruited from the under 15s at Strathmore to play for the Essendon under 19s. When I was 17, I played my first game in the Essendon Seniors. I ended up at the Swans and in ‘89 I had one of my best years. I think I came third in the best and fairest.

Then things went downhill again in ‘91. I’d sit in the toilets before our warm up and I’d cry. Then I’d have to go and play a game, which was not only physically demanding, it was mentally exhausting. Mum was driving me to the airport after a game in Melbourne and I burst into tears. I said, “Mum, I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to stop. I can’t take it.”

I was 28 at the time and there was no real understanding of mental health issues back then. It’s only in the last few years that organisations like SANE have really stood up and raised awareness. And with the AFL, it’s only really come about now with publicity around people like Buddy Franklin and Chris Yarran that the public and clubs are more aware. But there was just nothing like that.

Without footy, I had no discipline – to go to training, to stay off the grog, to keep fit. All that went out the window. I’d start going out on Friday nights and taking cocaine, and it got to a stage where I was basically doing coke every day. You lose everything – all your discipline, friends, money. I was so far gone, I was just leaving a path of destruction behind me.

Through a mate, I was offered a place in rehab. I didn’t have any medical insurance, so friends rallied around and raised the money. The day I was leaving, I had my bag and footy under my arm and opened the gate. There were about 50 people waiting and they all turned and looked at me. It hit me at once what I’d done to myself. It all hit me. And I decided to fight it.

I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression when I was about 43. Since 18, people had been telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself, to stop being a sook. At 43 I finally found out what was wrong with me.

In late 2014 I decided to go to the Essendon past players Christmas barbeque. That year, Simon Madden was hosting it. He said, 'Mate, I don’t know how to talk to you, because I just don’t know what you’ve been through. What about we catch up for a coffee?'

That was a major step for me, to sit in a coffee shop with one of my old friends. I had distanced myself from friends and family for so long. And now to have someone to talk to on a daily basis − that’s been pretty important to me.

It’s such a big issue, the mental health issue. So many people suffer, and so many people just hide it. I can’t emphasise this enough – you have to talk to someone, you have to go and get help.

It will steer you in the right direction to make the right decisions in life, so you can go on and lead a normal and happy life.

I’m a living example that with help and support you can come out the other side.

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There’s no information about mental illness in Papua New Guinea. I’ve never heard of a counsellor or psychologist there. If you ask people what it is they describe what they see in the movies — extreme conditions, seriously dramatised. Growing up, I think depression was just seen as a feeling.

Five years ago, I moved to Brisbane from PNG, reluctantly. I was 17. Back home I was used to having my friends and 50 cousins nearby, here I knew no-one. My siblings, Mum and I are now settled here, my Dad still lives and works over there.

A couple of months into my new school I started to skip classes or not turn up at all. On reflection, I’ve thought about why I started to rebel. It wasn’t conscious, it sort of just happened. I think I never saw a future for myself — growing up, working or having kids. I had no hopes for the future and always thought I’d die young. Maybe it was my way of reaching out — falling and hoping my parents would catch me.

After I graduated, I was in a bad state of mind, and realised that I had to get myself out of it. I went to my GP, he thought I had depression and referred me to a psychologist.

I didn’t want to accept it back then, I was embarrassed and didn’t know how to tell my family. We didn’t know what depression was.

My parents thought it was a feeling you have when you’re sad — I’d have my little panic attacks, then get over them.

Last year my grandmother passed away and I hit rock bottom. I stayed in bed until mid-afternoon, and only left my room to go to the bathroom or kitchen. I hardly went to work, avoided talking to friends or family and was always in a bad mood. I felt like no-one really understood — people thought I was grieving and would get over it, they didn’t realise there was something more.

Work was supportive at the start, I had a great supervisor and started to see a counsellor, I got a lot of things off my chest. Then a new team leader came on board, and he thought it was best for me to resign, come back when I was better.

My best friend Jonathan checked on me often, he was with me that whole time. He’s always encouraged me to talk about what I’d been feeling, why I might be feeling that way and urged me to think about how I could make it better.

Last year I started dating. I don’t want to say I’m changing for my boyfriend, but he makes me want to be a better person. I’m learning to control emotions, especially my anger, and his close relationship with his family inspires me to make an effort with my own.

I’m really open with my story on social media. I see my experience with depression and anxiety as a lesson learned. I want to use it to help others that are struggling. One day I’d like to help my people back home in PNG and raise the issue with our health minister.

If I have any advice I can share from my experiences, it’s that your story doesn’t end here. There is help out there, people that will listen, on and offline. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed about who you are.

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I love my life and have been quite privileged. I have also struggled with different mental illnesses for almost a decade. I was diagnosed with bulimia at 18 and had my first suicide attempt just before my 23rd birthday. It was just after this that I received my diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and was able to seek treatment and support.

It was actually quite a relief for me and my family to be able to put a name to what I was experiencing and to learn my triggers. While the symptoms of borderline personality disorder can be quite diverse, for me it was an irrational and impulsive response to different situations. I was very black and white. One minute I could be totally fine then something would trigger me into a complete suicidal episode and a 24-hour downward spiral. BPD generally also is a co-morbid self harm type illness. In my case it was an eating disorder – a sort of combination of anorexia and bulimia.

I’ve felt the stigma and discomfort around mental illness both in the workplace and in my personal life. There have been times I’ve had to take sick days for mental illness issues and it hasn’t been viewed as a proper sick day. I’ve also been excluded from certain social situations. I had quite a large group of friends and was sometimes not invited to things because I might have an episode. I’ve also isolated myself from events when I’ve known people would be there who have certain views on mental illness. So I’ve felt quite alienated at times.

I don’t blame anyone, as it’s such unfamiliar territory. People can identify with a broken arm, because they can see it. They can’t see mental illness so they can’t sympathise with it. They can’t comprehend the way your mind can change itself into thinking such deep and dark thoughts.

I feel there just isn’t enough accessible education around mental illness. There’s a lot of information about it, but you have to look for it. It hasn’t been as saturated in mass media the way other illnesses with the same statistics are. 

Supporting someone with a mental illness is definitely challenging. Your family and closest friends feel they should be able to support and love you no matter what, but you really test that. My loved ones have been amazing and I am so grateful. My partner has been incredibly patient with me and he’s taken the time to learn my triggers. He’ll hide under the blankets with me until I’ve calmed down. He knows not to say anything. He knows just to be there.

People might say they support mental illness, but most don’t want to talk about it. Being part of a community who have had similar struggles can be a big help. Mental illness is not a convenient thing – it’s not 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. So it’s really important to have somewhere to go any time of day, such as the online SANE forums. Reading about others’ experiences or having someone empathise with your own can give a lot of hope during your darkest moments.

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From the outside, my life looks pretty idyllic. I live in a beautiful part of country Victoria with my three wonderful children. But, as with many people, I’ve faced my share of demons. Mental illness has played a huge role in my family since my father was first diagnosed with depression over 15 years ago.

A strong, independent country bloke, his diagnosis came on the back of an illness. As his body started breaking down, so too did his mental state. My own struggle started when he took his own life. My experience has made me acutely aware of the stigma and lack of understanding that still surrounds the issue of mental health in this country.

This was particularly the case for my father – he was suffering depression at a time when there was very little support and awareness, in a community more remote than mine. As a family we found there were so many road blocks to get Dad the help he needed. There was a resounding attitude of ‘You’ll be right mate’. And his inability to deal with his perceived weakness, particularly when he was used to being the man of the house, was incredibly tough on him.

I knew it wasn’t just a bad day or a bad week. I was emotional all the time and unable to ‘snap out of it’, crying in the middle of the day for no apparent reason. Any time I would go to sleep I felt like I was being sucked down to the bottom of the ocean, further and further from the sunlight and down into the cold. I was diagnosed with depression and eventually tried to take my own life.

I don’t think people understand how debilitating a mental illness can be – it takes over your whole life. I really believe as a society we need to break down the stigma and say it’s okay to have a mental illness. It doesn’t make you weak or less of a person. I often compare mental illness to cancer as it can affect anyone, regardless of whether you have the best job or the best friends or the biggest house. When someone has cancer we rally around and support them; we need to approach mental illness the same way.

Mental illness is complex, and it can often be frustrating and isolating not being able to get the understanding and help you need from family and friends. Using something like the SANE online forums is a fantastic way to connect with a supportive, non-judgemental community. It’s completely anonymous and you can simply read what others are going through, or actively ask questions and seek advice at any time of the day or night.

Now that I’ve come out the other side, I am passionate about putting the topic of mental health in the spotlight. I look forward to a day when it’s no longer a taboo subject, it’s a dinner table conversation in every household. And if I were to go back and talk to my younger self in the depths of her depression? I would tell her she’s loved and to breathe through it, it’s just a moment.

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As a doctor living with bipolar disorder, I’m often dismayed at how people with mental illnesses are treated, even within the medical establishment. The problem with mental illness is that the symptoms are not always visible like a broken arm or another physical ailment. You can’t see someone’s internal struggles.

When I tell people about my bipolar disorder for the first time, many cannot believe it because I’m so high functioning and well adjusted. My longest period of stability between relapses was over ten years, during which time I lived a full life with a busy, full-time job, a loving partner, a property and a mortgage.

My experience with mental illness was in stark contrast to many people’s perceptions of bipolar disorder as a non-stop manic-depressive rollercoaster ride. Bipolar disorder affected my life with month-long episodes of supreme elevation (mania) usually followed by several months of feeling extremely down (depression), with relative periods of normality in between episodes.

My symptoms first emerged in Year 12 when I was 17 years old. I was quite elevated, talking really fast, very enthused about things, overly confident and not sleeping much. Despite this, my symptoms weren’t extreme enough to warrant medical attention.

Once I finished school, I found myself really tired and restless. I remember crying sporadically during ‘schoolies’, which is usually an exciting holiday period to celebrate finishing school. These extremes of mood were scary as they were new to me and I did not have complete control over myself.

The first doctor I saw diagnosed me with depression after just one clinical review. This diagnosis really didn’t line up with all my preceding experiences with elevation during school and the prescribed therapies weren’t effective. I helplessly stayed with this doctor for a year as my depression deepened and I continue to receive improper treatments.

A year later, a friend took his own life and the emotional stress of this brought on symptoms that were similar to those I had experienced in Year 12. I immediately recognised the pattern and sought the opinion of a second doctor. This time, I was given the correct diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

I actually remember feeling relieved at hearing this diagnosis. The label correctly put into a medical context the rollercoaster ride of symptoms I had experienced for the past two years. Naming the illness helped to shed some light on a very scary and unexplained time in my life. Being diagnosed correctly empowered me to take ownership of my illness and to understand it in greater detail. With proper knowledge and insight, I was finally able to seek appropriate treatment and adopt management strategies.

Ultimately, my healing could begin once the unknown enemy I had been wrestling with had finally been given its proper name. This sense of validation that comes with receiving the correct diagnosis is something I see with my patients too. Even if a diagnosis correlates with a poor prognosis, there is usually a sense of relief that comes with knowing what you are facing.

I had my first major manic event as a medical student, which in retrospect, was really illuminating. Barely any of my peers – some 200 medical students – identified there was a problem. And if they did notice that something was wrong with me, they didn’t raise the alarm or speak to anyone. If a medical student going through a mental health crisis cannot get the medical attention they require despite being amongst medical peers, imagine what someone in the wider community faces in a similar situation?

Being hospitalised was one of the most isolating experiences of my life. There were people that avoided visiting me, both during and after my in-patient hospitalisation, which I found very disappointing. My advice for friends and family of someone suffering from mental illness would be not to stay away, no matter how unsure you are of what to say or do. Just be there for the person as best as you can and try to support them in the same way as you would if they were experiencing any other illness such as surgery or cancer. By staying away and avoiding the person altogether, you’re only isolating that person further which can lead to a sense of helplessness and worsen their despair.

Similarly, if you’re suffering from a mental illness, it’s important to reach out to people and try to be as open as possible. The more we talk about this as a community, the more the stigma of mental illness will be lessened, and hopefully removed, for future generations.

If you don’t have a good support network, somewhere like the SANE online forums are an easily accessible service to help you connect with others in a confidential manner. Community discussions and shared individual experiences are powerful antidotes to feelings of shame, isolation and loneliness. You do not need to suffer alone in silence, there is an entire community of people out there willing to share their stories and listen to yours.

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TW: This article mentions suicide. 

A lot of people think carers are saints, they don’t think of them as human beings. But they are real people who absolutely do suffer from isolation, stress and burnout. Carers never stop looking after their loved one. They let themselves go, they don’t do anything for themselves because they don’t have time. When they go to bed at night they lie awake worrying. As a carer, it is very important to try to look after yourself and stay connected. I know this from personal experience.

I started caring in the late 1970s for my sister, a gifted artist who developed schizophrenia. At the time my sister first started exhibiting symptoms, there wasn’t really any information out there and I didn’t know what to do. She shifted next door to me and I tried to help her. But I couldn’t understand what was happening. It took many, many months to get a diagnosis. It was very difficult.

She took herself off medication as it affected her art, and as a result she wasn’t very well. As a single mother of three, I was now also responsible for caring for my sister and her little boy, who subsequently developed schizophrenia as well. The caring went on for many years, around a decade. My nephew ultimately took his own life, and my sister died eight weeks later. It was like a nightmare. I don’t think there are words to describe it. My son then developed depression and bipolar disorder and I have been his carer on and off ever since.

Attitudes are improving slowly, but the stigma surrounding mental health issues does have an impact on carers. I run workshops and meet a lot of people who are still afraid to be honest about what is wrong with the person they’re caring for. They’ll often say they have cancer or something else to avoid being alienated. Many people in society are embarrassed, ignorant and fearful of mental illness, and carers do not get the support they need. They’re invisible people.

Caring is constant and can be very hard. At first, I didn’t know how to cope. I was a single mum with three children looking after my nephew and sister as well. I started to drink at night. This is not uncommon. Thankfully, I learned healthier ways of dealing with things – journaling and meditation. Then it all got too much again.

This happens to a lot of carers; you experience burnout but you have to keep going so you slip into a dissociative state. You go about your daily life like a robot, it’s almost as if you’re in a dream. I suffered that. I was driving home after visiting a family member in hospital late one night and I drove through a few red lights on autopilot. I have a carer friend who found herself driving on the wrong side of the road. Worryingly, instances like this are more common than you’d think.

This is why it’s so important for carers to be able to connect with others going through similar situations by using resources like the SANE online forums. There is one specifically for carers and it’s completely anonymous, so you don’t have to put on an act. You can share your experiences, seek advice, or just read about what other carers are going through. It’s an opportunity to be completely honest, and even share some unique carers’ black humour to lighten the load and realise you’re not alone.

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I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 19 years ago when I was at TAFE. It came as a bit of a shock as I could not fathom how this could happen to me. I didn’t know much about mental illness or bipolar, but by getting help very early on I was able to get back on track and return to my schooling. I’ve been lucky to have the support of my family and friends and excellent doctors to help me in my recovery journey.

Everyone has their highs and lows. But with bipolar there are the extremes of becoming quite high or hypomanic and also the real downs where you become very depressed. When you’re experiencing mania, you have endless energy or might be getting by on only a couple of hours of sleep, or you’ll have all these grand ideas and plans. Then, when you’re down, you won’t want to leave the house or see anyone. So you’re constantly on a rollercoaster.

When I started to tell people about my diagnosis, I found most weren’t really aware of what mental illness is. Some people appeared uncomfortable or uneasy. A few friends even disappeared off the scene which was very difficult.

I think for many people it’s a fear of the unknown. This comes back to a lack of education and understanding from people that haven’t had a family member or friend or colleague with a mental illness. Or maybe they’ve seen negative media coverage about people suffering from a mental illness who’ve gotten into trouble.

I’ve worked in the mental health sector for the past 14 years and, while I’ve seen some improvement in people’s attitudes, unfortunately there’s still not enough education in schools or in the community. It’s better than it used to be, but it still needs to be improved so people aren’t afraid to speak out and get the help they need.

I’ve been quite open with my family about my condition, and when things haven’t been going too well we talk about it. My wife has been very understanding and she’s become really good at picking up on things before me if I’m becoming unwell or if I’m a little bit high or a bit down. This means we can get early help which makes a big difference.

I am really lucky, but I know that many people don’t have that kind of support which makes it so much more difficult. The SANE online forums are a great place for getting support from people who have a deeper understanding of what you are going through than probably your family and friends. It’s good to be able to hear about other people’s coping strategies too.

It’s all anonymous and you can go on and chat to someone at 3am if you’re feeling anxious or can’t sleep. When you read about someone going back to work or starting a relationship or doing well with their illness, it can be inspiring and give you hope that you can also live a full life.

I look forward to a day when people with mental illness will be accepted for who they are and won’t be judged. When they are seen for their qualities, hobbies, interests and job, not simply for their illness. The illness is just a small part of them, it doesn’t define who they are. And because mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it can affect anyone.

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When publisher Ian Syson read the manuscript of Sandy Jeffs' autobiography, Flying with Paper Wings, he was blown away by it. ‘It’s a story of survival,’ he says. ‘When I read it, I thought, how does she live with this?'

Sandy admits she found the five years it took to write the book extremely difficult. ‘I struggled for my sanity every day,’ she says.

She continues to grapple with the hallucinatory voices she hears, a symptom of the Schizophrenia she has lived with for over 30 years.

‘I don’t hear them during the day, but every night when I go to bed they persecute and denigrate me and now I wake up to them as well which is a real pain in the arse,’ she says. ‘I think to myself, I just can’t do this any more.’

At times, she has been tempted to end her life. But Sandy resists. She keeps going for the sake of her friends, for her public work, for ‘the stuff I do’, and to feel connected to the world.

Sandy has good friends who support her. She remains warm, funny and enthusiastic while battling demons few of us could imagine.

Difficult days that feel insurmountable, she breaks down into increments: 15 minutes for breakfast, half an hour to check emails, set times for washing clothes and doing dishes. She fills gaps by playing CDs or listening to the radio.

‘Schizophrenia is a horrible housemate,’ Sandy says. ‘You have to learn to understand its moods and the way they affect you. It might be through voices. It might be negative thoughts. It might be delusions. Living with that is hard work.’

Exercise is important for Sandy. For many years she has played with a local tennis group, and at the age of 47 joined a hockey team. Quite apart from the social and health benefits, the camaraderie, she says, is intoxicating.

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Through her public presentations Sandy has discovered that she is a powerful communicator. It fills her with wonder, especially when she gets a standing ovation.

Ian Syson is not surprised at her success. (Flying with Paper Wings was short-listed for The Age Book of the Year, and received the SANE Book of the Year Award, and a Commendation in the Australian Human Rights Awards.)

‘She is a remarkable person,' says Ian. ‘People hear her story and want to read the book. It’s selling as well as anything I’ve ever published.’

Sandy shares a house in the country with friends, Robbie and Dido, who don’t hold back when they feel ‘tough love’ is needed.

‘They’ll say, “You’re hearing voices, aren’t you?” And my voices are going, "Don’t tell them, don’t tell them!" And they say, "We know – we can tell by your face so don’t lie to us."'

The publication of her first book, Poems from the Madhouse, changed Sandy’s life. ‘I entered my forties with no future, identity or self esteem, and left that decade with success, hope, and a much stronger sense of self.’

Four more volumes of poetry, and now her memoir, have given Sandy a significant public profile. Her capacity to write with honesty and humour about the realities of living with Schizophrenia touches people’s hearts. ‘I feel as though I am speaking for those who have been silenced by the illness,’ she says.

Sandy’s autobiography has achieved even more. As she writes: ‘It has allowed me to delve into the darkness, to return with truths and lost dreams, and turn them into poems.’

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TW: This article mentions suicide. 

Jock is a fit, healthy man. A man who runs marathons. A public speaker. A man filled with the joy of life, and yet only a few years ago he was barely functioning as a human being.

Jock's mother, Dianne, describes him in those days as ‘overweight, depressed and lethargic, sometimes sleeping 20 out of 24 hours’.

‘It was a desperate, awful time,’ she says. ‘Jock probably weighed about 170 kilos. He was bloated, and looked terrible. He had no social life or social skills, and had trouble taking anything in or communicating. We were in despair.’

In his early twenties, Jock had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia, Obsessive-compulsive disorder and Anxiety. The years passed, and Jock showed no signs of improvement. His mother, two sisters and brother were beside themselves.

‘Whenever I called the clinic over my concerns, they just increased the dosage of Jock's medication,’ Dianne says.

Dianne, a strong and remarkable person, knew there must be an answer somewhere. She refused to listen to well-meaning people who told her Jock should go into an institution.

It was then she discovered a local community organisation, ERMHA (Eastern Regional Mental Health Association) which supports people with mental illness in a number of ways. Dianne persuaded Jock to go to their drop-in centre a few days a week.

‘It was a huge step,’ Dianne says.

While he was at ERMHA one day, Jock had a blackout and wandered off. He ended up in hospital. A neurologist was horrified at the amount of medication Jock was taking. Tests showed there was nothing neurologically wrong with Jock and that the cause of many of his symptoms was the excessive amount of drugs he was prescribed.

Dianne took Jock back to the clinic where he had been given the medication and saw a psychiatrist who read Jock’s history and threw out all but one of his tablets.

‘Within three months of the change in his medication, Jock took over his own life. He didn’t look back.’

At the same time, Jock’s GP referred him to a psychiatrist to deal with the Obsessive-compulsive disorder. ‘This worked brilliantly,’ says Dianne.

Jock started to feel alive again.

The combination of symptoms and side-effects of medication had given him a craving for caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol and junk foods. He decided to lose weight, quit smoking and drinking and improve his diet.

‘I did this myself,’ he says, ‘but got fantastic support from my family.'

He asked his brother-in-law Jason to help him get fit. They started with a run round the block. ‘We did about half,’ says Jock. ‘I was so out of puff it wasn’t funny.’

At the time Jock recalls thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’. But he made himself take what he calls baby-steps – boxing practice or a short run – every day, and set himself the seemingly-impossible goal of running a half-marathon within a year. Amazingly he did it, and he and Jason raised $10,000 for SANE Australia. They were among the top four fundraisers out of more than 17,000 participants.

On tough days Jock thought of his friend Pete who had ended his life. ‘He had Bipolar disorder and his death was a terrible shock. I knew he’d be happy about how I was going and it kept me on track.’

Jock

At the same time as he was getting stronger physically, Jock was enriching his life via ERMHA.

He took a couple of catering courses there and was accepted for the 20-week ‘Life Skills’ program run by the MadCap Café, a non-profit organisation helping people with mental illness re-join the workforce.

Jock now has a permanent part-time job there and loves it.

‘For years I found it difficult to communicate,’ he says, ‘but working with customers, especially, means my confidence has really soared.’

Jock was invited to speak at the official opening of a new MadCap Café. He shook with nerves but afterwards felt good.

‘I would like to speak in public more often,’ he says, ‘I want to help people who are in the same position I was, because if I can change my life around, anybody can.’

To overcome his nerves Jock has joined Toastmasters and to his delight has been asked to speak at the opening of a third MadCap Café.

Jock has taken up yoga and meditation, which he finds therapeutic, and keeps up his physical fitness by cycling and going to the gym.

Dianne now sees herself as a backstop in Jock’s life and is thrilled. 'I give him a good home base and support the decisions and choices he is making,’ she says.

She believes if he had stayed on the unnecessarily heavy doses of medication he might be dead by now. ‘As it is, he is now this lovely, intelligent, bright, beautiful person.’ She says.

She points out that Jock’s sister Julianne – Jason’s wife – is 14 years younger than him and only ever knew him as unwell. ‘She keeps looking at him and says she now has a wonderful big brother in her life.’

‘His other sister Andrea knew Jock before he became sick,’ she adds, ‘and tears well up in her eyes when she sees him with her kids.’

For the family, Jock’s transformation is a miracle. As he says himself, ‘I used to exist but now I have a life.’

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There is a great deal of love in Kylie's family. It is plain to see as she chats with daughters Emma-Leigh and Madeline, the three of them laughing warmly together.

The girls also listen attentively as Kylie recounts the tough times she has experienced as a single mother with Schizophrenia. Their faces beam when she acknowledges how crucial they have been in her recovery.

As Kylie tells her story, it becomes clear that her resilience and good parenting have played a big part in Emma-Leigh and Madeline being so mature and well-balanced.

Kylie became unwell at a stressful time in her life: a relationship breakdown was followed by the death of her mother and then the birth of her second daughter. Within six months, Kylie was diagnosed with Schizophrenia.

For some years she was unemployed and lived with the girls in sub-standard housing, always lacking for money and battling the effects of her illness.

‘The ill-fitting curtains showed my poverty like a banner,’ she says, ‘but I was too ill to care.’

These were hard years for Kylie who, in spite of her illness, held the family together. ‘No child protection issues came up with us which is rare for someone as sick as I was,’ she says.

Like many children who have a parent with mental illness, Emma-Leigh had learning difficulties at school and was bullied for a time. Her teacher was unsympathetic.

In desperation, Kylie approached a Catholic primary school in the country town where she lives. The Principal agreed to take both girls, and the support of the school made a profound difference to all their lives.

At school, the girls’ extraordinary qualities are now appreciated and acknowledged. Their reports regularly comment on their unusually high level of concern for others.

It was Kylie’s concern for her daughters which led to her giving up smoking a few years ago.

‘Smoking did not make me feel better,’ she says. ‘It was a crutch. There are far better coping strategies for mental illness than smoking, not to mention the cost and the effects on my health.’

Kylie had developed a permanent bad cough, and she came to realise that smoking was controlling her, rather than the other way around.

‘I found out more about the effects of smoking – the addictive nature of it, the damage to my health,’ she says. ‘I then used patches to help me quit and asked friends never to offer me a cigarette. The girls were my inspiration.’

Shocked at the cost of nicotine patches, Kylie spoke out in support of SANE Australia's campaign for the Government to subsidise their cost, to help people on a low income to quit. She was delighted when the patches became available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Determined to lead as full a life as possible, Kylie attended a number of rehabilitation groups run by a local community health service and stayed on as a peer support person.

This led to a Diploma of Welfare in TAFE and a demanding job as a Community Support Worker with a PHaMs (Personal Helpers and Mentors) Program which has a strong emphasis on recovery.

The people I work with are socially and geographically isolated by mental illness,’ she says. ‘We see people in their own homes, helping them to re-connect with their communities.' Kylie later become a member of SANE Australia's Board of Directors where her personal and professional experience brought an invaluable perspective to discussion of SANE's work.

She recognises that clinical health services treated her symptoms well when she was unwell, but also stresses that she only started to recover and grow as a person after attending rehabilitation programs and thinking about getting back to study and work again.

Kylie finds the best way to maintain her own health, apart from medication and sound sleep, is having a routine in place. She thrives on the daily rhythms of school and work. She notices a dip in school holidays.

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Emma-Leigh and Madeline support Kylie in every way they can. They help with the housework and cooking, remind her to take her medication and ensure she gets enough rest. Schizophrenia has cost her the ability to sleep naturally.

‘At the weekend, Mum is tired and needs to catch up on her sleep,’ says Madeline. ‘We help out at home – I like to clean the kitchen, feed the animals, clean out the fish pond and rabbit cages.’

The girls are surprisingly cheerful about their weekend routine. ‘We make it fun,’ says Madeline.

If their mother starts to hear voices – auditory hallucinations – the girls curl up beside her and sing into her ears to drown them out.

From her own experience and through her work, Kylie is well aware of the potential difficulties facing children who have a parent affected by mental illness.

‘Young carers like Emma-Leigh and Madeline often slip under the radar,’ she says. ‘They have big responsibilities at home which can affect their performance and behaviour at school – yet this often isn't recognised.’

Kylie has a strong support network of relatives, friends and neighbours who watch out for her daughters in case she becomes unwell, and the girls have also attended support groups specially for young people in their situation.

In the midst of a busy day, Kylie is often reminded of the close bond with her daughters. She might open her work diary and find a note saying: ‘Hi, hope you have a good day. Madeleine.’

She might also find herself gazing at the picture on the wall of her office. It shows the head and shoulders of a woman cut into pieces but then stuck together again. Emma-Leigh made the picture when she was seven years old. She says she did not consciously draw her mother but when Kylie saw the picture she immediately identified with it.

She was amazed, she says, that a series of symbols Emma-Leigh had drawn around the head, including rainbows, were all symbols of recovery and hope.

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Evan 'has always wanted help other people', says his wife, Tammy. ‘And this is what he's doing now – he touches many lives.’

Evan's job is to help give a voice to people with mental illness who come from non-English-speaking backgrounds. His formal title is 'Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Mental Health Consumer Advocate'. He and five colleagues, whom he mentors, talk to people affected by mental illness in ethnic communities about their experience and how they can be helped better. They also give talks to local social and sporting groups to raise awareness of mental health issues.

Evan was born in Egypt. The family migrated to Australia when Evan was six and he grew up speaking Arabic and Greek (his mother's tongue) as well as English. After a happy childhood, life changed for Evan in his late teens.

‘I started to giggle and laugh a lot and did not want to interact with people socially,’ he says. ‘I also became paranoid, thinking people were following me and that my thoughts were being broadcast.’

Evan's parents realised something was wrong and turned to their Greek Orthodox priest for help. He prayed over the young man.

After a while the symptoms became more severe and Evan's parents took him to their family GP, who said it was mild 'nerves', and put him on sedatives. This made no difference.

‘My parents were confused and worried,’ Evan says. 'Their English wasn't as good as mine and they didn't know what to do. Eventually they took me to a hospital emergency department, and I was admitted to the psychiatric ward for three months.’

He was told he had Schizophrenia – but that it was an illness which could be treated.

‘Doctors can provide medication. They can give you recreational activities and advice. But the desire to get better has to come from you.’

Evan educated himself about his Schizophrenia, took his medication, made an effort to stay socially active and eventually married and had two children. While that relationship ended after twenty years, he has since met Tammy and the two have been married for five years.

‘My mum got me back to the Greek Orthodox Church after a long break, and there I met Tammy, who not only shared the same interests, background and beliefs, she also had Schizophrenia.’

‘I found him kind, gentle, quietly spoken and caring,’ Tammy says. ‘I fell in love with him.’

‘It was a double bonus: someone who understood the illness and someone who shared my beliefs and values.’

Tammy and Evan also watch out for each other. ‘We understand each other's symptoms when they flare up,’ he says.

Tammy takes special note of the times Evan is tired, restless and flat. ‘I tell him he has to look after himself, that work can wait,’ she says. ‘It's quality that matters.’

Evan admits he has a tendency to do too much, as his work has become a passion.

He was studying for a science degree when he first became ill and his goal was always to do work which would help others. He never finished the course but he has achieved his dream in other ways.

Today he helps other people experiencing the baffling and often frightening symptoms of mental illness – and provides an example to show it is possible to come out the other side, to manage them, and to be happy.

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As well as his work with ethnic communities, Evan writes articles for the media and speaks on SBS radio, highlighting the availability of interpreters for people concerned about mental health problems when talking to health professionals or helplines.

He is well aware that ethnic families, although strongly supportive of each other, often lack confidence in speaking English and may not understand the importance of early intervention with mental illness.

Evan also sits on a number of boards and committees including the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry (RANZCP), Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council, and Advocacy Disability for Ethnic Communities (ADEC). He runs statewide mutual support groups for people with mental illness as well as a local group called Spectrum of Cultures. Yet another role is conducting community education classes for GPs.

Now in his 50s, Evan has returned to study and is doing a Leadership course linked to the RMIT Community Development Diploma at RMIT University. Evan has also completed a Certificate IV course to educate himself on how to deal with people with all kinds of disability.

To bring some balance into his life, Evan power-walks, reads, gardens and enjoys Zumba dancing exercise classes in his 'spare time'. He has been a soccer coach and a well-known referee for Soccer Australia for many  years.

Tammy's love and support have transformed Evan's life but the success of his work is deeply rooted in his personal determination to find healing through what he calls self-advocacy.

‘Self-advocacy is about learning to stand up for yourself before you can stand up for others,’ he says. ‘It is about building your confidence and self-esteem. It takes time.’

As Evan knows from his own experience, it does take time but he is a sterling example of how it is possible to get there, happily and well, in the end.

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Tania and her dog Kelsey make a striking pair as they walk every day near their home on the Victorian Surf Coast. Kelsey is a handsome Rottweiler and Tania a tall, fit woman in her 40s. Some days they head for the beach, other days along the banks of the Barwon River.

Although Tania enjoys the exercise, it’s the companionship with Kelsey and beauty of the surroundings that never fail to lift her spirits.

‘I love animals,’ she says, ‘and I particularly love dogs. Some of us with mental illness can become self-absorbed. Whenever I am with Kelsey, and particularly when we are out walking, I focus on her rather than myself. I am totally engaged in what she’s doing. There are lots of lovely places to walk and that exposure to the natural environment does have a positive impact on me.’

Tania moved back to Ocean Grove to be close to her friends and family, whose love and support, she says, have helped her accept and manage her illness effectively. (She was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder over 20 years ago.) Tania has a wide network of friends in the area and it was through them that she discovered another passion – the joys and benefits of music.

She and a group of friends get together every few weeks and make music. ‘About six of us play the guitar, a couple play the drums and we all sing. I find it extremely relaxing and good fun.’

Tania first became unwell in her 20s, while serving with the Victorian Police Force. She was diagnosed five years later and although the Police Force had been compassionate and understanding, she eventually decided to leave.

‘It was a very difficult decision to make as I was well supported within my workplace, and had good pay and work conditions – but my personality is such that I become over-involved in work and take work-stress home. Unfortunately stress is a significant trigger in becoming unwell.’

It was a decision that led Tania to embark on a new career. She completed a Bachelor of Education and Training at the University of Melbourne, and enjoyed the experience of being a mature-aged student. After graduating, she worked as a trainer, conducting team building with work groups, community groups and universities.

A few years later, Tania took part in a Bipolar group therapy program that covered education about the condition, early warning signs, triggers such as stress, and the importance of building relaxing and pleasurable activities into daily life. Tania remembers what an eye-opener it was to discover that Bipolar is not a one-size-fits-all illness.

‘My involvement in the course was rewarding and inspiring, and while it sounds like a cliché, it did change my life.’

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The program prompted Tania to change jobs once more and move into the area of mental health. She felt she could make a significant contribution not only through her skills as a presenter and trainer, but also her years of accumulated knowledge, personal experience and insight. She now works for Barwon Health, coordinating and facilitating Mental Health First Aid to work and community groups.

Tania admits it took her some time to learn how to manage her illness well, that her family and friends have helped her through some difficult times and that, although she is good at monitoring herself, they also keep an eye out for her.

‘They’re very good at saying to me, ‘Tan, are you a bit buzzy? You seem a bit “whatever.”’ I am able to hear this and usually what I do is go away and reflect on it and say, ‘Actually, I’m OK’ or ‘No, I’m not very good.’

Last year, Tania set herself the goal of becoming much fitter again. This has always been an important part of her life but she was not following any regime apart from walking.

‘The fitter you are physically, the more likely you are to keep good health mentally,’ she says.

In the midst of her busy days, Tania scarcely has time to draw breath. ‘I live a rich life,’ she says. ‘I am blessed with a loving family and friends and my loyal companion Kelsey. I have meaningful work and am able to use my experience of living with mental illness to educate and help others.

‘I have great work colleagues who are very supportive but my challenge for the future is to relax more, think less, and enjoy every bit of the journey.’

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Terese is a mother of three young boys who lives in northern Sydney. Busy teaching, writing and looking after her family, Terese’s life today is a long way from when she experienced her first episode of Bipolar disorder in her late teens. It has taken over twenty years to pull her life together, she says.

Now in her 40s, Terese discovered the joys of poetry as a girl, winning creative writing competitions in high school. She has never stopped writing, even when diagnosed with Bipolar disorder at 19, and during those times since when she has been unwell.

‘A lot of people with Bipolar are writers,’ she says. ‘When you have the flow of energy there is an increased ability to write creatively. I use these periods to get a move on and write more poetry. I also tend to feel things at a deeper level then, and that experience of life is what I draw upon.'

Education is another passion, one which Terese initially walked away from when she was first hospitalised. She comes from a teaching family and was doing her Bachelor of Teaching at Macquarie University when her grandmother said, ‘You’ll never be able to work as a teacher. It’s simply not an option for you.’

Many years later, Terese’s involvement in mental health advocacy in high schools reignited her dream of teaching. She successfully undertook postgraduate studies and now works regularly as a casual teacher.

Terese’s psychiatrist feels she should limit the amount of teaching she does, as it is such demanding work. Terese does not always agree.

‘Like everyone, it’s important for me to find the life/work balance that suits me and because I have Bipolar, I try not to overload myself,’ she says.

Terese’s enthusiasm and engagement with life is strongly supported by her network of friendships. One of her closest friends is Kate. The two women got to know each other as mothers of small children. Kate only gradually realised that as well as parenting her three boys, Terese was also grappling with mental illness.

‘There are lots of challenges and I think it can be isolating,’ Kate says. ‘It was an eye-opener for me and I really admire Terese. When she helps my boys with their homework I can see what an extraordinary teacher she is.’ On one occasion Kate realised Terese was unwell and hadn’t taken her medication. She scooped her up, took her to the chemist, filled the prescription and told her, ‘You’ve just got to go back on your medication, make another appointment to see your doctor, and keep going.’

Terese was immensely grateful for such practical help. ‘Kate is very supportive and not in my face all the time asking me how I am,’ she says, ‘but when I was really unwell she was there for me.’

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The two friends are founding members of a book club which has been running for over ten years. For Terese it is an outlet for her love of literature, as well as a close connection with a group of like-minded women.

Kate sees Terese as a strong presence in the book group. ‘She pulls us all together with inspiring emails and had often brought something linked to the book such as food described in it when we were first meeting. She also brings valuable insights and is brilliant at picking apart the prose. I think what we offer her is a contribution to the rhythms of her life.’

When Terese believes in a cause, she becomes actively engaged in supporting it. Her commitment to feminism, for example, led her to join the Women’s Electoral Lobby. She would take her youngest son when he was a baby and put him in a playpen in the corner of the office when she did membership work.

Terese is also involved in her local community. She lives in part of Sydney where the native bush and built heritage are greatly valued by residents, and is actively involved in the local bush care and building conservation groups.

Much as she loves all the different facets of her life, Terese is aware that she needs to guard against a tendency to travel at a million miles an hour, to be everything for everybody and have no time for herself. Her friend Kate is one of the people in her life who can gently remind her from time to time to put the brakes on – that her boys are only young, and that sometimes she just needs to be centred on being herself.

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James has a mission. At the age of 36, he found something that gave real purpose to his life – to educate young people about the dangers of drugs which can trigger mental illness.

Tentatively he sat down and began to write:

When I opened my eyes it was morning, but not your average start to the day. The distinctive voices of four friends I had not seen for months were talking to me inside my head.

He had taken himself back to the day he was admitted to Rozelle Hospital in Sydney when he was just 18.

Putting into words the experience of his drug-taking, mental illness and the long journey to reconstruct his life took James two years.

‘I found it very cathartic,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t be able to remember it all now because I dealt with it by writing the book.’

He describes the process as healing not only for himself, but also for his mother, Victoria, with whom he lives in Sydney. She read everything he wrote each day. ‘It was horrendous,’ she recalls with a shudder. ‘It brought everything back.’

James relates his story with raw honesty and great courage. He started taking drugs when he was 15 because everyone he knew was doing the same.

‘I never thought about the damage,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know what Schizophrenia was before someone told me I had it. I went to one rave party called Psychosis 4 and I didn’t even know what Psychosis meant. Then all of a sudden I just messed my whole brain up.’

He wrote the book –  Escaping to Reality – ‘to stop people from ending up like me. I can’t even hold a part-time job at the moment.’

Since that day when he was first admitted to Rozelle, James has been hospitalised four times. Victoria has been there for him every day.

His mother had no idea James was taking drugs.

‘It has been a huge learning curve for me,’ she admits. ‘At the beginning when James became ill, I didn’t know what to do with him. We took him to Rozelle and the doctors were great, but watching him go into the locked ward was like a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.'

When James came home from hospital he would lie for hours on the settee in what Victoria describes as ‘his great big old coat’. She felt helpless and isolated.

'He had done so well at school.' she says, 'I was tempted to say to people that that is what James is really like – that this James is not him. Apparently mothers do this.'

Although she says she is over it now, Victoria’s anguish is still palpable.

At the start of James' illness, during the months before he was settled on the most helpful medication, he was, says Victoria, in a terrible state. At one point Victoria took him back to hospital, where doctors tried him on a new medication.

‘I hung around for hours,’ says Victoria. ‘Eventually they said I could go and see him. He was asleep so I shook his shoulder gently. He looked up at me and said, "Hello Mum." It was marvellous! He was back – just like that.’

Once his medication was working well, James started a traineeship in Star City Casino. He was sharing a house with friends and enjoying his work but unfortunately slipped back into the party scene.

He stopped taking his medication, started using ecstasy and wildly overspent on his credit card. He was soon unwell and back in hospital.

‘Once I got out of that place,’ he says, ‘there was no way I would ever touch drugs ever, ever again. I just didn’t want to destroy my whole life completely.’

James now lives quietly, taking each day as it come. He sees his psychiatrist once a month, takes his medication, and gets on with his life.

He enjoys a game of pool, rides his mountain bike in the bush, and practices on his beloved electric guitar. He would like to play in a cover band one day.

‘That’s not taking me back into a drug environment,’ he hastens to add. ‘I would be a damn fool to give up everything I’ve worked for.’

James still gets 'the horrors' every now and then – the voice in his head, severe paranoia and attacks of extreme anxiety. When that happens he takes sanctuary in his mother’s lounge.

‘I come and sit in here,’ he says, ‘It’s safe. I don’t want to talk to anyone – I can’t. It can last 20 minutes or all night. No-one can understand it. If there is a hell, that is what it is.’

James is careful to avoid what he calls bad stress. ‘Caffeine will do it,’ he says. ‘Alcohol, or even being in a crowd.’

Writing and publishing his book has given direction to his life. He had an edition printed privately and is keen to bring it to the attention of Year 10 students in schools.

He is particularly thrilled by a message he received from a friend of his father’s, whose son had read a copy of Escaping to Reality.

He sent James an email saying his son had stopped taking marijuana, stopped smoking cigarettes and turned his life around at school.

‘Your words have made a difference,’ he told James. ‘You helped my boy and I thank you.’

‘If I had had this book at 16 or 17, things would have been very different for me too,’ he says quietly. 

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