It Wasn’t The Lack Of Compassion That Hurt, It Was The Lack Of Understanding about Mental Illness and Addiction

I had been feeling upbeat over the past few weeks, ahead of our run for breast cancer – which we nailed by the way, raising in excess of $800 for research. And then I stumbled upon a FB share of an old article of mine that was published by News.com last year.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

As a writer of contentious topics (for some) – ADHD, feminism, inequality, mental health – I realise that I put myself in a glass house when one of my articles is published, and I have learned not to read comments from trolls.

This particular article was a highly personal piece about Kurt, detailing his struggles with his mental health, and my reasons for coming full circle on my views about cannabis legalisation. It was an opinion piece – hence, bait for comment and constructive criticism – to which I am always open.

However, many of the comments were not constructive. They were subjective – targeted directly at me as the author and mother. They laid the blame for Kurt’s issues squarely at my feet, and it was that lack of understanding about mental health and addiction that hurt the most – even more than their lack of compassion.

It was a slap in the face to realise that in spite of the attempts of fantastic organizations such as Lifeline and Headspace and various media outlets to improve awareness about mental illness, (as well as the increasing numbers of kids that are taking their own lives), that many people still believe that kids with mental health issues deserve no support, and should even be punished for not towing the societal line.

I am used to being held responsible for Kurt’s choices. Sadly, blame starts with the parents when it comes to ADHD, although there has been a gradual shift in attitude in recent years, thanks in part to the increasing acknowledgement and support of the condition by world governments.

And I can (sort of) see why. A child with impulse control or oppositional issues can look like a monster when you peer in from the outside. However, that refusal to show compassion or to probe more deeply into understanding the condition is why so many of these kids end up being bullied, isolated and rejected, leading to depression, self-harm, OCD and self-medication.

When it comes to inclusion, attitude is the biggest problem we face. But trust me when I tell you that any child with mental health issues who self-mutilates or lines up pills on the carpet is not “attention-seeking” (by our common acceptance of the term). They are seeking attention for help.

Beyond the public condemnation, perhaps the hardest part of the journey for parents or carers is the lack of support, the sense of isolation and the self-blame. That’s why I wrote that article. For others out there, like us, going through what we did and feeling alone.

It has taken years for me to come to terms with the fact that I am not to blame for Kurt’s struggles.

Sure, if I had my time again I would handle some things differently, but I know that no child could have been loved more. We raised our kids identically. We put the same boundaries in place that we did for NC, and like any normal teenager, she tested those boundaries. The difference was, NC was able to distinguish which of her strikes for independence were worth the consequences – unlike Kurt, who was encumbered by poor impulse control.

I try to give people the benefit of the doubt – at the very least until I have all the facts or I have met them personally. Rather than judging a book by its cover or from local gossip, I arm myself with as much information as I can before I draw my conclusions. When did we stop doing that as a society? When did we decide that it was acceptable behaviour to take a pop at someone for our own entertainment?

Surely, there can be no excuse for ignorance when we have access to information at our fingertips?

Social media has made it easy to bully without consequences and I fear that we are losing our sense of compassion. So before you jump right in with your heart rather than your head, remember that there is a real person at the other end of posts or comments, who is often motivated by doing good. That person has a heart and possibly a full wardrobe of skeletons that you know nothing about.

Why I Cried In A Star Is Born

For those of you who know me and my need to spew verbal rubbish at least twice a week as a means of therapy, you might have guessed that my past few weeks of silence has nothing to do with laziness or writers’ block.

However, this time, it is not my story to overshare. Instead, I want to talk to you about “A Star Is Born”, because it is rare for me to cry in a movie.

Admittedly, I cry each time I watch “Terms of Endearment” – who doesn’t? – but usually, I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to movies – even tear-jerkers. Be it emotional defensiveness or a block, I am lucky that a history of brutal initiation ceremonies at boarding school, a family tree that resembles the Ewings in “Dallas”, and the numbing effect of anti-depressants for my anxiety – all contribute to protecting me from the lows.

(I should also point out, in my defense, that – spoiler alert – BRADLEY COOPER DIED in the movie).

But sadly, while those are all highly plausible reasons for my ugly sobs at the loss of that perfectly chiseled and landscaped chest beautiful hunk of a man (and the hero of many a middle-aged woman’s fantasies), in truth, the reason for my public blub was the content of the movie. It was just a little too bloody close to home.

Anyone close to a person who suffers from depression, anxiety or alcohol and substance abuse will understand the sadness and sense of helplessness caused by their struggle.

The devastating effects of these conditions radiate throughout the inner and outer circles of the people close to them, provoking a fear that never truly goes away.

Unfortunately, mental illness is not something that can be fixed as easily or as quickly as a broken limb. Indeed, I am beginning to believe that perhaps it can never be fixed – although some people do learn to manage it.

I am not a psychologist or doctor, but I would like to explain in simple terms the “depression” I have witnessed. Due to a myriad of reasons, there are some people who don’t feel that they can ever be happy or slot acceptably into society. Particularly, a society that expects the same from them as everyone else – that views them as a problem rather than a group of people that need support. Modern society is a meritocracy that is not inclusive to those with a disability, and when these people can’t meet normal expectations, they start to feel inadequate or a burden and they isolate themselves. This is when many of them start to dance freely with the notion of death.

Inevitably, their behavior can leave their loved ones in a perpetual state of fear – a fear that is hard to understand when you look from the outside in. For while there is empathy for people who are physically sick with those illnesses of which we have a greater understanding, such as cancer, there is less for those who suffer with invisible illnesses.

Added to which, the desperation they demonstrate in their behaviors and choices in life is easily misunderstood. For example, a common misjudgment about homeless people is that they are lazy addicts that abuse the system -rather than victims of mental illness, neglect, or abuse, who have hit rock-bottom. Addicts are viewed as the dregs of society or irresponsible pleasure-seekers, rather than people suffering from a disease.

I’ve used the analogy of a game of “Snakes and Ladders” many times when I’ve written about caring for someone in this situation. To support a person that you love to the end of the world and back, who won’t seek professional help, is similar to playing the game. You take ten steps forwards, and just when you think they are finally making progress, they slide back down a snake.

During their better periods, you fool yourself into thinking that this time they will stay well. You pray that the new job, new house or new partner will provide them with the change they need to provide them with the purpose they need to live. But you never breathe freely.

You despair at the way they abuse their bodies as a coping mechanism – which, obviously, it isn’t. You know that they self-harm to feel something – anything – that they drink to forget or to find the courage to function in such an unforgiving world. You know that the alcohol and drugs – the very things they abuse to feel normal – are just a catalyst to greater heartache as you watch them spiral helplessly towards their own self-destruction.

So what can you do?

You can look out for the signs. You can listen to them without judgment. You can empathize. You can remember that depression is not the same kind of sadness that many of us experience from time to time. And yes, it is possible to function with it – which makes it even harder to spot. Eventually, you may have to acknowledge that you may not be able to save them.

If the statistics are to be believed, we have a massive problem on our hands with the number of “troubled kids” and men out there. The choice made by Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born” is becoming more common as our kids are placed under greater pressure from advanced telecommunication, social media, and fears about their future in terms of climate change and housing. Many of them are reaching their tipping point. When that silent growth of fear linked to not being good enough that has been eating slowly away at them starts to spread – like the Melanoma in those scary skin cancer ads – it distorts the reality of their situation. And ultimately, without the right support – and even WITH the right support – it can lead to devastating, irreversible decisions.

To help prevent these tumors from growing, we need more funding in schools and mental health services. We need greater awareness and better education. Above all, we need more empathy and understanding. So please consider carefully who will best serve the future of our kids when you place your vote at the next election.

For the carers of these people – who love them unconditionally and who for the most part are at a loss for answers or solutions about how best to help them – the fear that they will make Jackson’s choice is all-consuming. That is why I cried in “A Star Is Born”.

‘Making Self-Love Habitual’

‘Self-lovers don’t diet. They eat what they want, when they want, but do so mindfully.’ (Jacinta Tynan, Sydney Morning Herald)

reading-925589_960_720Admittedly, I’m still working on the ‘mindful’ part of this comment, but I’ve been doing a lot of research recently about loving yourself and this article – How To Make Self-Love An Instinctual Habit – confirmed to me how easy it is to change your outlook if you look at it as something that needs and deserves the same care you give the rest of your body.

Ie. If you value yourself.

 

I also rewatched Tim Minchin’s Nine Life Lessons again  – frankly, one of the best video clips online, in my opinion – in which he recommends embracing life and taking a positive approach wherever possible, even if (naturally) you err on the side of “glass-half-empty-dom” or like him, take the piss out of people for a living. 

Recently, I have tried to mix things up a bit within the confines of my own personality – to adopt new interests and remove bad habits, so that I embrace life more proactively. Recent health studies into dementia stress the importance of learning new skills – crosswords aren’t enough, it seems, (much to the old man’s disdain) – and so, after my last stay in the Doldrums Hotel, I’ve introduced nine habits of my own (below) that I’m forcing myself to do I’m cultivating within my lifestyle to help improve my mental outlook:

  1. Reading – As a teenager, I was an avid reader – anything from Mills and Boon to Jane Austen, and loads of Jackie Collins in between. It provided escapism, fuelled my eschewed dreams of romance and relaxed me when I was feeling anxious. And then I had kids, and the opportunities for reading time dried up. I tried various book clubs – that forced me to read books I wasn’t interested in – and when I began to write seriously, fiction had to be replaced by articles, how-to-write and self-help manuals. Anyhow, recently I’ve forced myself back into reading before bedtime, and not only am I sleeping better, I’ve also been inspired by what I’m reading from both a creative and educational standpoint. You’re never too old to learn.
  2. Fangirling – I know it sounds as pretentious AF – and by way of a pathetic excuse, I will say that this new pleasure of mine is somewhat tenuously linked to my writing – but I love to listen to author talks. NC and I attended a Q and A with the writer Emily Maguire last weekend, which included High Tea and Champagne.  What better way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon?
  3. Masterchef – After a sabbatical of seven or eight years, I decided to give Masterchef another go and I’ve dragged the old man in for the ride. Neither of us has massive culinary aspirations – and I’ve ignored the notebook he passes to me each time the show starts – but what’s not to love about watching the journeys of this likable, brave group of amateurs, who are willing to make mistakes so publicly in search of their dreams?  The arrogance and bizarre eating habits of the chefs are equally entertaining as is the occasional public slaying of the professionals. Miss you, Brendan – talking of fangirling!
  4. Exercise – Admittedly, I never thought I’d include this one in a list such as this, and after years of wobbling down my street in a vain attempt to shed weight, that’s no longer my goal. These days, I exercise to keep my brain fit and healthy. Nothing too strenuous – mainly walks and swimming – but just enough to stop my mind reaching into those dark corners where it prefers to reside.
  5. Simple cooking and eating – I’ve always been an advocate of four-ingredient cooking (preferably three), and recently I’ve turned my hand to a few new dishes. Soups have been my thing in these cooler months and I’ve worked out that you can basically knock up any sumptuous vegetable soup with one hero vegetable and a base of potato, onion, and stock. Comfort in a bowl. I sprinkle a handful of crisp bacon on the top to disguise the fact it’s vegetarian from the boys.
  6. Friends – I know – obvious, right?  And yet ageing and menopause can conspire to push you back into the doldrums more than you’d like, making you socially anxious. And one day, the thought of staying at home under a blanket with the dog on the couch sounds far more appealing than making an effort to see people. Having moved back to our old neck of the woods, I’m so grateful to old friends for forcing me out.
  7. Writing/Journalling – For me, writing has been a life-saver. It’s cheap therapy for me, and really, I should be paying you for listening. There was a while back there when I was so focused on my manuscript that I rarely left the house, when I felt like I had nothing much to say and I parked the blog for a while. But recently, I’ve got back into it with a renewed fervor. My world hasn’t suddenly developed more layers, but it has evolved and developed different layers, and I have begun to enjoy the writing process again. I’ve also started writing a new blog about interior styling here for anyone who is about to sell their home or is passionate about interiors.
  8. Resting – I haven’t resorted to nana naps (just yet), even if some of my friends swear by them, but I do force myself to sit down occasionally. Over-stimulation fuels my anxiety and when I am impulsive and rush, I make mistakes. This has been one of the hardest disciplines for me.
  9. Medication – In the wake of recent events, I can’t emphasize this example of self-love enough. There is no shame in taking medication for an illness – many people are forced to. There should be no stigma attached to taking medication to live a normal life, especially when a normal life is not being afraid to leave your house. Obviously,  I would love all my nine points to be based on organic, holistic ideas, but the reality is that some people need more than that. To enable a quadriplegic to ski, he needs the assistance of a specially-designed chair;  to help someone with anxiety leave their front door, a pill can work. So, what’s the problem?

License To Rant

The best thing about turning fifty is that you get a license to rant and it turns out that I have quite a talent for it. Which is why I’m going to dish the dirt on the six or seven police officers at a Random Breath Testing unit at 10am this morning in my sleepy suburb.

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‘Have you had a drink this morning, Madam?’ I was asked.

‘If only,’ I almost replied with a twinkle in my eye, until common sense prevailed. Australian police are not known for their sense of humor, and as I locked eyes with the loaded weapon on the officer’s hip, felt the color seep into my face and for a second there, I forgot how to count to ten, I decided that a quip wasn’t worth the risk. 

But what I would like to know is just how many drunk drivers they expected to catch at 10am on a Tuesday morning? I mean, in the scheme of things, it was probably a little late in the morning to catch those that had over-indulged the night before, and a little premature for those gagging for their lunchtime tipple.

And while I know that (in general) the police do a wonderful job of policing my son and that part of the reason for the fall in the rate of traffic accidents among young people is thanks to their diligence, surely they have better things to do?

With the escalation in bullying in schools around the country that has dominated the media in Australia this week, surely some educational visits to schools would have been a more valuable use of their time?  Suicide is also on the increase in the same age-group, so what about educating kids in how best to support a suicidal friend? Surely, that has to be more beneficial to the public taxpayer than catching Reggie McPissface who is one drink over the limit?

Then there are the homeless, more and more of them, and many through no fault of their own. Perhaps, as the days get shorter and cooler, they might welcome a hot drink or some friendly advice about the best places to sleep tonight to keep warm; indeed, I imagine they would appreciate an interaction of any sort.

And yet six or seven police officers can justify the time breathalyzing a motley crowd of people on their way to work.

 

 

The Lost Opportunities Caused By ADHD

Sadly, the main take-home from the ADHD conference I attended last week was the pervading sadness in the room at the mention of “lost opportunities”.

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Unlike other neurological conditions, ADHD appears to leave a bad taste in the mouths of some, and as such, the condition attracts unfair criticism. There is some truth in the criticism that certain sufferers of ADHD make it difficult to help them – in part due to mood and conduct disorders, which can make them oppositional, angry and self-defensive. But that reaction can be just as easily blamed on self-defensiveness, borne of a lack of support from a society that stigmatizes or completely refuses to acknowledge the existence of the condition.

A personal reason for my attendance at the conference for adults with the condition was the sneaking suspicion that I sit somewhere on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. Other reasons were my ongoing research for my manuscript – the main protagonist being an adolescent with ADHD – and my hope of gleaning some new advice in relation to my continued support of my son, Kurt.

There are certain givens when you put two hundred people with ADHD in a room together:

  • The event has zero chance of running to time.
  • It will be noisy.
  • Questions are never left to the end, even if the speaker requests this.
  • There will be a continuous background noise of bodies shifting in seats,  fiddling and whispering – in other words, a plethora of distractions to distract the easily-distracted.
  • The cakes disappear very quickly.
  • The queue for the smoking area will be longer than the queue for the toilets.

This annual conference, run by the “ADDults With ADHD” group, is a lifesaver for Australians who suffer from the condition and who qualify for little support from the government. This, in spite of the inclusion of ADHD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Many of the adults will have been diagnosed on the back of their children’s diagnosis. Research has shown that there is a genetic link, and between 40-50% of children who have parents with ADHD will inherit the condition. Which means that a lot of people will have gone through life feeling “different” and facing the unending criticism and trials that are pertinent to the condition.

And yet, there is a wonderful sense of community, relief, and support when you put a band of these people in a room together, each seeking answers, the latest advice, and dare I say it, validation. 

ADHD and its co-morbidities represent one of the “invisible” mental illnesses that for a long time have been unrecognized, even though the neurological condition has been chartered since the 1800s. As such, it currently sits where depression and anxiety sat until a few years ago – condemning its sufferers to a life of shame, failure, and regret, as a result of the missed opportunities caused by that small difference in the development of the frontal lobe of the brain.

As millions of high school kids begin their HSC exams today, it is worth remembering that there will be children who miss the milestone because of their. Some will have dropped out of school due to anxiety, depression or bullying; others will be excluded due to truancy, non-completion of course requirements or other behavior-related issues.

Whilst every speaker highlighted the good that comes from the condition – the ability to hyperfocus, (when employed in the right way), the big hearts, intuition and sensitivity (that make them great carers and teachers), and the ADHDer’s leaning towards creativity – inevitably, mention had to be made of the negatives linked to the diagnosis, as well.

For every ten comments a child with ADHD receives each day, nine will be negative. So, it’s little surprise that the condition wreaks havoc with the mental health and expectations of a child.

The minute the term “lost opportunities” left the mouth of one speaker, an audible sigh went around the room from the audience. In the same way that parents grieve for the missed opportunities of their child, the newly-diagnosed adult with ADHD grieves the loss of their own.

‘Don’t tell your employer you’ve got ADHD,’ was the damning advice of one psychologist – an appalling admission in this age of so-called equality. For the same reasons that it is inadvisable to acknowledge depression, HIV, or your sexual preferences in the workplace, it is still safer to keep schtum about your ADHD.

The condition, (we don’t like the word “disorder”), continues to be stigmatized by the media as either an invention by pharmaceutical companies to make money, or by bad parents to excuse poor parenting – this, in spite of the medical evidence and the statistics that indicate that up to 50% of the male prison population have the condition. And with suicide on the increase, it is hard not to make a connection with ADHD, when anxiety and depression are known comorbidities.

Conferences such as these are a promising start to support people with ADHD – to peel back the layers of negativity that surround the condition and to rebrand it. In the same way that disability is recognized among the physically sick, it is time to change the rhetoric around invisible disabilities like ADHD.  Let’s remove the stigma that clouds our judgment when it comes to invisible conditions and provide the equal opportunities and recognition of the struggles that its sufferers deserve.

Broken People

Wow! ‘Manchester By The Sea’.

 

sad-505857_1920It’s unlike me to enthuse about movies on this site. Truth be told, it’s getting much harder to walk away from a movie and feel truly motivated these days, (Hidden Figures is an exception), so exhausted am I by the blatant ageism, objectification and sexism that Hollywood continues to get away with.

 

But then a little film like this comes along.

 

Admittedly, it had my name all over it. Grief, depression and dysfunctional relationships are the sort of dark ingredients that get my blood pumping, although hardly the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster, even when they are blended so beautifully together that it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen. Even the visual is bleak, as the storyline is set up in a backdrop of snow, sleet and the sort of bitter cold weather that makes the characters appear even more vulnerable and our heart ache even more viscerally for them, before anything awful has actually happened.

 

You might not go and see this movie because of the controversy surrounding the lead actor, Casey Affleck – sexual harassment allegations from some years back which have tarnished the production because they were settled out of court, leaving inevitable question marks. NC refused to come with me, and I had to overcome the sour taste in my mouth because the theme of the movie is so important to awareness about depression and, well frankly, personal.

 

I won’t spoil it for you by giving away the storyline. Suffice it to say that this is a ‘real’ film about broken lives, shattered relationships and fragmented families, hence no solution and no happy ending where you walk away with a smile on your face and a good feeling in your heart. I commend the filmmakers for that, because when it comes to depression, it’s a falsity to think that anyone fully recovers or that they wake up one morning and are miraculously fixed.

 

Below are some thoughts I wrote about on a bad day:

 

Do you ever think about doing something easier? Until you realize all over again that nothing is easy.

 

Do you ever think that everything is too hard? That no matter how many times you re-invent yourself, you’ll never be truly happy?

 

Do you often feel so tired that even your most reliable friends, coffee and wine, can’t get you through the day, can’t lift your mood any more, and your only solace is buried beneath the bedclothes with your anger and self-pity for company?

 

Does that voice of self-pity become so loud sometimes that the only way to keep it in check is through thoughts of escape?

 

Does that grinding ache of impending panic in your belly take over every waking thought some days, and do you hate yourself for being such a loser, for being so pathetic, so spoilt, when you have more than most people would ever want?

 

Do your relationships and interactions with close ones feel two-dimensional? Do you feel like they ask too much of you one day and not enough the next? Do you feel that you can’t give back what they need from you and that what you have to give, isn’t enough?

 

Is the visual of happiness in your head completely different to what you thought it would be? Is it closer to a small room, these days, by yourself, where you can do what you want, eat what you want, the only place where you feel in control of your destiny?

 

Friends, don’t worry because I’m fine, and reading this back today I realised that it is the voice of the typical creative who has a platform where she can explore, through words, all dimensions of self-pity.

 

Sometimes, I think I suffer from ‘perfectly hidden depression,’ a word made up by Dr Margaret Rutherford, which she explains in her piece When People With Depression Function Too Well. Most of us suffer from this some of the time, I suspect, mainly because it turns out that life is not the fairy tale stories we were brought up on.

 

I function well, but as Dr Rutherford so cleverly describes, sometimes I feel as though I don’t have the vitality for life that I should have, and the closest I get to it is via pills and self-medication, aka wine.

 

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Many of us are ‘broken’. Some by trauma; some by inherited mental illness.

 

And some will handle it better than others.

 

What I love about ‘Manchester By The Sea’ is the rawness of Lee, the main character, and the honesty of his depiction of ‘the black dog’, which is a real dedication to nothingness, because the trigger to his illness has left him barely functioning. He continues to work in a non-challenging environment, but the only way he can function outside of this distraction is to isolate himself, self-medicate and not have to explain why. Trauma has changed his life irreparably, in spite of society and his family’s expectation that everything will be okay in the end.

 

Casey Affleck deserves an Oscar for playing a ‘dead’ character who will never go back to the person he was before, no matter how much others want or try to coerce him to. Sometimes the pain doesn’t go away and I don’t think that Lee really wants it to. He sees it as his punishment.

 

Most of us find a way to move forward after trauma; to appear normal on the outside, at least. It is assumed (or hoped) that we will get through whatever triggered the depression because no-one wants to talk to the sad person at the dinner table when they’re hellbent on having fun.

 

Sadly, many don’t get through.

 

 

Suicide, And Making Men Understand That They Don’t Have To Be Heroes

man-1465525_1280It seems a million shades of wrong to be preparing for Christmas drinks when a week or so ago another family lost their son, in his early twenties, to suicide. I cannot imagine their ongoing suffering as I worry about whether we’ll run out of wine or if I’ll poison everyone with my Thai chicken meatballs.

 

A week has passed since the funeral and while the rest of us move on with our lives, prepare for Christmas and celebrate another day of life, that family’s life is shattered. Somewhere on his journey, their young son who always wore a smile on his face, lost his will to live; he lost sight of the value of his life and how much he mattered.

 

We have a duty to find out why our men are choosing to leave us when seemingly they have everything to live for. It’s doesn’t seem right that a child should find justification to end his life before his parents. That’s not the natural order of things. But castigating ourselves about how that boy could not know how much he was loved and valued, or how much he touched the lives of others, is futile now.

 

We accept the powerlessness we humans have in the face of the blows dealt by fate to change the lives of some irrevocably. We accept that we are mere pawns in the game of life with no power or foresight to change the direction of its steely hand. Illness, political gamesmanship and even climate change all impact and mould our destiny.

 

But we should never accept suicide as another of nature’s or God’s ways to control our population, because it is a choice.

 

However, unless we fund the research to identify the triggers that provoke men to give up on life prematurely, the statistics will continue to increase. Change will only come about via education and sniffing out the vulnerability before it takes hold. We need to change the way we raise and talk to our boys to make them understand how much their position in the world has changed. We need to talk to our boys. We need to remind them that they don’t need to be heroes, and perhaps, if they understood that they don’t need to carry the weight of responsibility or swallow and store their emotions to maintain a mask of strength, we could prevent such loss.

 

Television series such as the “Man Up” series are starting to embrace this rhetoric – to “start a conversation about male suicide.”

 

Because the statistics are appalling.

 

“In 2015, preliminary data showed an average of 8.3 deaths by suicide in Australia each day” – approximately two-thirds of which were men.

 

“We need a revolution in the way we think about and deliver mental health care and suicide prevention across Australia,” wrote Jeff Kennett for The Sydney Morning Herald

 

Sometimes it’s hard to truly believe that our lives are equal in value. But whether we’re in the support team on the plane of football stars that crashes, refugees seeking new lives or the nurse in the rehab centre where the multimillionaire seeks sanctuary, when our time comes our material wealth becomes immaterial. I believe that our legacy is about what we leave in the hearts of others.

 

That young man’s death has left a gaping hole in so many hearts, so we have to ask the question, why?

 

Here’s what we do know:  We know that when they are young, men can be impulsive because their brains are not fully formed until their twenties, which means that their ability to manage emotional crises may be compromised. So in those moments of despair, they don’t have the experience to comprehend that the searing intensity of pain will diminish, that things may not be as bad as they seem or that communication may contribute towards healing.

 

What we can do is encourage them to talk, ask them if they are okay, look out for signs of depression.  We can remind them that they don’t have to be heroes.

Anxiety, Hope and Earning The Olympic Gold For Worrying

If they handed out an Olympic Gold for worrying, I’d get it.

 

I’ve skirted around the void of depression many times, when my anxiety has gnawed away at me like some flesh-eating bacteria, so close to the bone that I’ve felt like it was all too much. directory-466935_1280 

 

Unlike many people out there who wax lyrical about alternative methods to “cure” depression, medication has been my saviour, the only treatment that has worked consistently for me and allowed me to function relatively normally. Exercise helps, but it wouldn’t be enough on its own.

 

But even medication isn’t an antidote, and so sometimes I get caught out when the black dog begins to circle.

 

In the first weeks after we moved to the suburb we live in now, which is close to the Harbour Bridge, a young man took his life by jumping off it. It was an event that affected me viscerally at the time because we were fighting to stay alive in a zone of wall to wall fear for our son Kurt. That poor boy’s death became personal to me. I was angry with him, visualised myself shaking him and promising him that with time he would feel better, I cried for him and couldn’t get him out of my head or imagine that level of despair. I catastrophized his death and convinced myself that it was a sign.

 

Suicide is becoming more and more common, not just in middle-aged men where it has always been prevalent, but in our young, who on the surface should have everything to live for.

 

When you’ve found yourself close to the level of negativity where you give up hope and question your reason for being, no amount of ‘but look at what you’ve got to live for’ talk can help. Whenever I move into a bad period of anxiety like I did recently, I always end up sitting with the doctor, tears of shame streaming down my cheeks at being so miserable when my life is near perfect.

 

But there are a multitude of triggers of depression and anxiety, many of which the experts have yet to understand.

 

I read many articles about suicide, not because I’m some weirdo but because it’s one of the main themes of the book I’m writing. What has stuck with me are the number of articles from survivors and how, so often, their attempt has been enough to change their outlook. It’s only afterwards that they can see through the clouds of despair, acknowledge that there is some hope, that they are loved, and that some simple changes and support in their life could provide a very different outlook.

 

When you are immersed in that thick, obscure soup, you think that nothing will ever change and it is the overwhelming fear of failure and letting people down that prevents you from embracing what life has to offer.

 

But the patterns of our lives twist and undulate constantly – something you realise with middle age but the young person with depression will find hard to see. For example, twelve years ago, I would never have believed that I would be living in Australia now, doing a job I enjoy, and that the kids would have survived my unique brand of parenting. The bi-product of a divorce, I might also be quite surprised to see that my marriage has endured all the dramas I’ve thrown at it, and I would never have believed that parenting could hold so many challenges or shape me so indelibly.

 

Three years ago, if someone had told me that things with Kurt would eventually get easier, I wouldn’t have believed them. Back then I saddled myself with blame for his behaviour, held myself personally accountable that my little boy wasn’t happy in his own skin. I now see that he has to take some responsibility too.

 

And here we are, making baby steps towards some light.

 

One of the best bits about life is its unpredictability; that nothing has to stay the same. Each day we grow, develop and begin to understand more and more deeply why we were put here. This short period on earth can be a difficult tenancy but we are the landlords of our destiny and if things don’t go to plan, it’s reassuring to know that we can move on. If only everyone was given a second opportunity to realise that.

Trauma and Bullying And Their Link To Mental Illness

The Sharpest Pencil, one of my favourite blogs, by Lana Hirschowitz, drew my attention to this illuminating, but deeply sad post by Mike Cullen recently on the subject of bullying, after the investigation of the Safe Schools program here in Australia was announced.bully-655659_1280

 

An Open Letter To The Prime Minister of Australia

 

In their own words, ‘the Safe Schools Coalition Australia offers a suite of free resources and support to equip staff and students with skills, practical ideas and greater confidence to lead positive change and be safe and inclusive for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families’.

 

Unfortunately however, concerns have been raised recently at the explicit sexual content used in schools and what some see as its ‘indoctrinating’ influence, hence the investigation.

 

This investigation into something that many see as a highly positive arm of education, was designed to help school children understand the problems faced by the young LGBT community, and its investigation comes at a time when the suicide rate in Australia has increased by more than 13% over the past year, and the worst affected group are 15-22 year olds.

 

In is post, Mike describes his time at school, where from his kindergarten year he was bullied for being an LGBT kid, a sad indictment of not only our society but of the children we are currently educating, because this behaviour still happens today. As a parent, it is distressing to read about the terrible experiences and injustices kids like him are subjected to, just for being different to their peers.

 

Around the same time, I read a letter that was published by clinical psychologist, Richard Bentall, (a school contemporary of the actor/commentator, Stephen Fry, who is very publicly vocal in the mental illness forum about Bipolar Disorder, being a sufferer himself), to correct Stephen on his mistaken belief that all mental illness is linked to genes, but rather to social and environmental factors that may lead to trauma (which includes sexual abuse, Stephen).

 

What I Wish Stephen Fry Understood About Mental Health

 

But obviously it’s not only LGBT kids who are at risk of bullying, trauma and mental illness.

 

When I first read Bentall’s letter, my old friend ‘mother-guilt’ inevitably set in and I found myself wracking my brains to think how or when we might have traumatised our son Kurt, who as many of you know we have been through the proverbial teenage mill with over the past few years  as a result of mental health issues. Until I realised that although his ADHD has always been the root cause of many of his problems, the real shift from ADHD to depression and self-harm began in Year 9 when the bullies cranked it up a notch at his school, mentally but physically.

 

Looking back to that time now, knowing what we know now, I despise myself for the naivety that led me to accept the advice of a school that had shown very little in the way of interest in my son’s troubles, despite the many red flags, and which believed that making him sit out of the classroom was the most effective way to punish him. The school also intimated that bullying was a phase my son just had to go through, a kind of rite of passage for boys to teach them to toughen up; in fact the only real support the school offered would have singled him out for even more bullying.

 

The situation ultimately came to a head when Kurt made a stand and refused to return to the school; his innate terror of physical harm at the hands of his peers was such that it far outweighed any potential repercussions from the Department of Education for what we knew they would see as truanting. He lay in bed for days, depressed and disconsolate, until we decided something had to change, upped sticks, moved location and school.

 

I wish I’d listened to my son earlier, rather than a school that was ill-equipped and under-funded to cope with mental illness, but I thank God that eventually we followed our gut instincts as parents and acted upon them.

 

These days, sadly, too many parents don’t get to see the warning signs, and aren’t given that second chance before it’s too late.

 

Ironically, within a few weeks the school did threaten to report us to the Department of Education for Kurt’s unofficial absence.

 

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the current suicide rate in young adults proves that mental illness is a big problem for our kids, that many of them are struggling and we still don’t understand what the triggers are. Suicides are not mentioned in the media for fear of copycat behaviour, but because of that cover up (which has valid reasons), many parents remain in the dark about the increase in the statistics or may not realise that their child may be vulnerable and at risk.

 

So remain vigilant, keep the communication lines open with your teenagers and don’t trust departments or schools to have the same instincts as you have when it comes to your child.