Psyched Out

20 February 2017

When I was in primary school, we had to wear a hat during recess and lunch when the weather was hot. Those who did not have one were forced to sit under the shade outside the Art Room. It was a depressing spot, nothing but a rectangular slab of concrete under a veranda. I would constantly ‘forget’ my hat on purpose just so I had an excuse to sit there. I knew nobody would play with me and did not even want to try. Nowadays, people would look at that as a serious sign of anxiety, social issues or depression, but at that time nobody at the school ever noticed it, let alone sought to help me.

A renowned Melbourne psychologist recently said, “The mental health care industry is certainly improving as is acceptance and recognition of mental health.”

You could even say, there’s never been a better time to be mentally ill.

Not only are electric shocks and straitjackets at an all-time low, but the stigma has reduced greatly. Mental illness is widely understood and empathised with nowadays, rather than scorned or dismissed like it once was. There are 135 countries around the world pledging to implement the World Health Organisation’s Mental Health Action Plan and ‘cool’ celebrities like Ryan Reynolds, Miley Cyrus and Jim Carrey speak openly about their mental illnesses. Counselling is seen as no different than going to the dentist, except it’s just a different part of your skull being worked on.

My own journey through the mental health care system has been eventful to say the least. As mentioned before, it all started when I was in primary school, way back when Isis was just an Egyptian Goddess and #hashtags were only used to play Tic Tac Toe. I knew I was different – always worrying too much, crying too often and not playing with other kids enough. My concerned mother took the wise step of getting me some help. I went through an assembly line of smiling child psychiatrists with their “How are you feeling?” quizzes and pile of toys in the corner. It just wasn’t very effective. Not because those child psychiatrists weren’t competent, it’s just that you can’t get a little kid to open up if they don’t feel like it, or expect them to persist with something that they don’t enjoy.

I refused to go back and managed to survive the remainder of primary school by gritting my teeth and clinging to the happiness I garnered from food and Cartoon Network.

In the following years, anxiety and anger took hold after a maddening high school experience, so I sought professional help again. In 2012, I began having weekly counselling sessions with a psychology student at a university. It was pleasant and helpful to talk about my problems, having a consistent source of support and a friendly ear to listen to me. It was inexpensive too, which was great.

Except this was not enough. A student counsellor ultimately lacked the skill and confidence that a troubled mind needed, it was like going to a trainee barber when you need a hairdo for the Oscars. Not to mention that conversing with a fellow uni student in a confined room is more conducive to a crush than a cure! So I ceased the sessions at the end of 2013 with the belief that I was in a comfortable place to continue into my final year of uni unaided.

I was very wrong. My unchecked mental illness saw me make a mess of life and booked me a room for one at rock bottom. By mid-2014, I was jobless, friendless and hopeless. The hangover from that was just terrible. I barely did anything in the summer months of 2014/2015 other than lie on a couch in silence. I was a wounded soldier sitting in the devastating aftermath of my own out-of-control moods and ego. At my own graduation in December 2014, I didn’t even crack a smile. I knew instantly that professional help was no longer a choice, but a necessity.

I briefly tried a spiritual healer, my last stop before psychiatry. Aside from the nice smell of incense, it did nothing for me and I stopped after three appointments. I realised that it would take more than just a friendly heart-to-heart to help me, what I needed was heavy-duty treatment.

I went to my GP and got referred to a psychologist.

I vividly remember the first session with the psychologist in early 2015. It was a Friday morning and the summer sun was just beginning to poke through the clouds. Soothing jazz music played in the waiting room, which had a collection of reading materials like National Geographic, Rolling Stone and even a copy of There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake. I was nervous about it, still in a negative headspace, but I felt as though I was taking a solid step in the right direction. Hope was in the air. I was called into the room and met the white-haired, friendly-faced psychologist. The first session consisted of me explaining my whole story, unloading everything that worried me and the troubling things I had done. He listened, dictating as I spoke. I was surprised to see that my stuff-ups filled over six pages!

I have had sessions with him fortnightly ever since, always on a Friday morning. There is the same sense of renewal and excitement present in the air every time. It has not always been easy. I have had to learn complex Medicare details. I have been put on medication with side-effects that gave me problems for a while. I admitted to my insult-generous siblings that I was in counselling. I also part with a few hundred dollars every two weeks.

However, it wasn’t long before those challenges became irrelevant. I soon felt like the boulders in my head were crunching down into manageable chunks, grinding into fine dust and blowing away. This cleared the land in my mind for a much better life which I have been lucky enough to enjoy for some time now.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the system is perfect. Long waiting times, high costs and limits in resources and accessibility is a reality for many people. More needs to be done. What is important is that such issues are bureaucratic and not the symptoms of a nation that isn’t making an effort. A few bad apples don’t spoil the tree that is very much growing and spreading its helpful branches around the country.

All in all, my journey through the mental health care system has been a positive one and has worked. Every step of the way, help was always available in so many forms. I was never made to feel that no one cared and no one was there. It was all about poking my head through the open doors until I found exactly what was right for me, which I eventually did.

While I haven’t reached the finish line of my journey with mental illness – I have gotten to a meaningful checkpoint. With billions of dollars in Government funding and almost 30 programs available, it’s comforting to know that others can receive beneficial help too, without feeling ashamed about it.

I’ll leave you with a comforting message. In my psychologist’s office, there is not just one chair for him and one for the patient. There is a whole circle of chairs, so every time I go to a session on Friday morning, I am reminded that I am not alone. Neither are you.

If you are in a similar situation, help can be found here:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Beyond Blue 1300 224 636

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