We all have unwanted, intrusive thoughts. A tiny smudge on the mirror that only you took notice? A picture hanging slightly askew that’s bothering you? A desire to have all of your pens neatly lined up? These are intrusive thoughts.
Imagine hearing someone call your name as you’re walking down the street, or having a song stuck in your head. To never be alone, even when you’re by yourself. That is what it’s like for a percentage of the population who hear voices.
At WayAhead on May 6, Chairperson of Hearing Voices Network in NSW Douglas Holmes, whose friends call him Doug, gave an inspiring talk on the work of the Hearing Voices Network and the experience people have with hearing voices. [Read more…]
Could a simple blood test detect the efficacy of antidepressants on those with depression? A new study suggests it’s a possibility.
It has long been known that first-line anti-depressants are not effective treatment options for everyone. While some people may find success with their first treatment option and others may have to work through a few options before settling on a medication that works, for almost a third of people current antidepressant medication does not work. This is frustrating, not least because many antidepressants can have unpleasant side effects, which the patient then has to deal with without any relief from the initial issue of depression. [Read more…]
One woman’s journey for change in mental health awareness
Jenny Smith is a consumer advisor for her local health district and a mental health educator, who shares her experience with others. She goes to regular workshops and carer support groups and generally lives a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. But that was not always the case.
Jenny has also been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and spent much of her life helping to care for her father and sister who live with mental illness.
Growing up, Jenny had a fairly happy childhood – “playing outside, going to the park and spending my pocket money on a bag of lollies.” She spent time with her friends and played with her sister, but there was a cloud on the horizon. Everything started when her mother went to hospital for a routine operation.
“[It] was supposed to be a simple procedure but it did go wrong and as a result she nearly died…this event seem to affect Dad a lot…”
Soon her father’s behaviour began to change; he began pacing, shouting, playing loud, obnoxious music, and having random bursts of anti-social behaviour. It gradually got worse. “He had some psychotic episodes: he thought mum was using drugs, poisoning his food, then in one instance he poured the coffee out of the jar for my sister and I to check for drugs.”
During one particular episode, her father disappeared in the afternoon and after her mother noticed his medicare card was missing, they discovered his doctor had sent him to the local psychiatric hospital, where he stayed overnight and then discharged himself.
“The local mental health team came to visit him the next day, he wasn’t interested in their help but was referred by our GP to see a local psychiatrist. He only ever saw him a couple of times and started taking an anti-psychotic drug, which he did not take all the time, therefore his moods were unstable.”
Concerned for her safety, Jenny’s mum left her father for a while.
Around this time, Jenny started developing symptoms of her own: shaking hands, rapid heartbeat insomnia and an upset stomach, which she initially attributed to stress. However, as they progressed throughout the years, it became apparent there was something bigger at play and she was eventually diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Jenny graduated in 1991 – almost twenty years before the introduction of the Mental Health Act 2007. There was little to no recognition of mental health issues at schools.
No one recognised the issues Jenny was having might be due to deteriorating mental health. Yet Jenny recalls how her mental health affected all aspects of her school life.
“…My results were below average and I was having difficulties keeping up with homework and assignments.”
At the end of year 10, Jenny was required to complete an application to continue at her current school for her HSC – her application was rejected and she was forced to move schools.
“I had to leave at the end of the year, I left behind friends I had grown up with and familiar surroundings… I was the new kid. I found it hard to make friends, adapt to a new timetable/new rules and new surroundings that I wasn’t use to.”
All this time, at home, her father’s mental health was getting worse.
As well as dealing with her and her father’s mental health issues, it was becoming apparent that Jenny’s sister was struggling as well. She had been diagnosed with learning difficulties in primary school but these were never followed up and, as a result, she never managed to complete her HSC.
“My sister was also having her own problems with suicidal thoughts, panic attacks and self-harm. She did get some help from a local adolescent health unit but the psychiatrist she saw refused to put on her medication…She wasn’t coping at home with my dad’s behaviour; she started going out all day, every day to avoid him. One day, unexpectedly, she walked out and moved into a crisis refuge, which then lead to a placement in supported housing.
During her time in supported housing, Jenny’s sister became increasingly depressed and attempted an overdose. The health professionals were having difficulty with her medications and the constant change was making her unwell.
After leaving school, Jenny worked for some years as a preschool assistant before deciding to pursue a life-time dream and train as a primary school teacher. But it did not turn out as she’d hoped.
The combination of her own battle with mental health and having to deal with the deteriorating mental health of her father and sister made it difficult to complete assessments on time. In an attempt to make up for these failed assessments Jenny placed additional pressure on herself, which only increased her stress, with her grades continuing to suffer. This culminated in her first year of prac teaching.
“I got a Year 6 class, I had been working with them during the semester so I knew the kids well. We were very limited in what subjects we could teach in first year; it was only maths and english. I didn’t last three weeks; after the first two weeks, it was decided by the senior supervisor that my teaching skills were not up to standard and I was given a fail grade… The decision had been made and I was asked to leave the school.”
Jenny was devastated.
Her depression and anxiety spiralled and she failed the second semester and dropped out of university.
Deciding that she needed further help Jenny went to see her family GP who was aware of the family history of mental illness and prescribed her a combination of anti-depressants and counselling which helped her learn coping strategies for everyday problems.
In 2004, Jenny’s father was diagnosed with a rare form cancer. At the time, Jenny was working as a HSC exam supervisor but had to quit the job when it became clear her father’s condition was deteriorating.
“Dad had cancer for nearly two years – it was a rare blood cancer called multiple myeloma, and, unfortunately, he lost that battle in 2005 and died the night of my birthday.”
With help from her GP and the support of her family, Jenny made it through.
“I always remember mum and dad telling me to take one day at a time. Before dad died he told me to be happy and get on with the rest of my life.”
And that is exactly what she is doing. With the support of her family, who understand her mental health struggle, Jenny is getting back on her feet.
“I have been stable on medication for many years. Over the years, I have learnt a lot about myself. I think to survive a mental illness, you need courage, resilience and perseverance as well as a good support network. Today, I am generally well and I am a survivor of mental illness. I think the most important thing is to take baby steps with whatever challenges life throws at you.”
As an educator, Jenny is passionate about increasing the awareness around mental illness and decreasing the stigma attached to it. And, she believes in starting from the bottom up.
School is one of the most important learning opportunities in a person’s life and she would like to see mental health awareness for teachers and students included in the learning environment.
“[In my day] we did not have counsellors or much in the way of special education/needs teachers available at the time, neither did we have any peer support programs at school – it would have helped if we did. These days, there are more support services available in schools. I would like to see that continue so each child, no matter what their abilities, can reach their full potential.”
Written By Jean Roxon
It’s stories like that of Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury (Lifeline H2H) and its hoarding treatment program that show the passion and ingenuity of those who work in the mental health community.
Last October, WayAhead celebrated another rewarding month dedicated to the mental health community with the 2015 Mental Health Matters Awards. Each award winner comes with its own little story of how they got to where they are today, and Lifeline H2H is no exception, making a huge stride in the mental health community. [Read more…]
A new research project in Sydney is investigating whether the type of food we eat could prove to have an affect on our mental health.
A team of psychologists at the Mental Health Interventions and Translational Psychology Research Centre (MHIT-Psych) are in the process of recruiting people with a history of depression to investigate the potential benefits of probiotics on an individual’s mental health. [Read more…]
Follow Up Story
“When we talk about how Australia treats our criminals, often the discussion is about the niceties or otherwise of prison facilities…we don’t talk enough about whether they should be in prison at all”. This is what Andrew Leigh said in his recent speech to the Justice Connections Conference 2015 and he makes an interesting point. Is incarceration always the answer and if not, what are our alternatives?
“I read a book a day like an apple,
But I did not eat.
So the doctor came to me,
He said a woman does not live,
By the printed word.
Forgive yourself and eat.”
Down and Dusky Blonde
(God Help the Girl)
Anorexia is a challenging concept to address in any form of fiction. Yet it seems everyone has known someone who has lived or is living with some form of eating disorder.
Enter Stuart Murdoch’s (front man of cult Scottish band Belle and Sebastian) 2014 film, God Help the Girl. Starring Australian actress Emily Browning, the film centres on Eve, a young woman who has been hospitalised for anorexia but ‘escapes’, determined to pursue her love of music.
Along the way she meets university student James, who has had his own (mostly failed) band experiments, and rich girl Cassie, who wants to become a singer but has none of Eve’s innate talent. Together they spend the summer singing and learning how to live, eventually forming the band for which the film is named. Her friendship with James and Cassie and their nonjudgmental support of Eve is shown as a catalyst to her recovery and the music they create forms the backbone of this feature.
To call God Help the Girl a musical is inaccurate. That being said, it would be foolish to imagine that a film directed by one of the most loved musicians of the 21st century would not include an amazing score. The songs are both a part and separate from the story arch. In the band’s style, the music develops from the quiet, sad solo of “Pretty When the Wind Blows” to the louder ensemble piece “Down and Dusky Blonde.” And, in this way, they mimic Eve’s inner journey. The songs are catchy and melancholic, and Browning has a surprisingly strong voice that carries the music well.
There is something about its use of music that allows the film to delve deeper into the issues of anorexia and eating disorders than a standard feature can. Perhaps because music is such a universal medium that can convey an array of complex emotions into a few simple lines, allowing a view into the world of what it is like to live with this type of mental illness without making the audience feel like a voyeur.
It is hard to deny the influence of whimsical film-maker Wes Anderson in this piece – from the colour scheme of muted yellows and reds to the eccentricity of Eve’s costumes. Yet while paying tribute the film does not feel like a copy-cat. This could be due to the subject, which is a far grittier, and embedded in real life concerns, than Anderson’s work. Or, maybe it is the way the characters interact – creating a web of complex human emotion that has none of the distance or performance of other pieces. But mostly I feel it is because of the music.
Murdoch drew on his own experience with mental health issues and his friends’ experiences with eating disorders, as well as consulting various experts in the field to make sure that he gave an accurate and true representation of living with anorexia. And although not many of the scenes take place in the hospital, or indeed revolve solely around Eve’s anorexia, those that do seem to be carefully created to represent a realistic and unglamourised view of the illness.
This is not a children’s film – both in how it deals with mental illness and in relationships. But, for adolescents and adults, it’s a carefully crafted, clever, sometimes funny, sometimes sad portrayal of how mental illness can tear your life apart but how friends, and in this case music, can help rebuild it.
By Jean Roxon
About Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are serious and common.
According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, Eating disorders affect approximately 9% of the population.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Eating disorders affect men. While “God Help the Girl portrays” the story of a woman, Eating disorders also affect men of all ages.
Eating disorders can affect anyone. They occur:
- Across all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds
- Amongst people of all ages, from children to the elderly
- In both men and women
If you are concerned that you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, please call the Butterfly Foundation Hotline: 1800 ED HOPE/ 1800 33 4673.
Our families are one of our best support networks that we can rely on when we need a hand. In the mental health sector, family can be someone who actively cares for a consumer and supports them through recovery. However, among obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) consumers, the family can potentially become engrained in a person’s behaviours through family accommodation.
Dr Rocco Crino, a senior clinical psychologist and associate professor at Charles Sturt University, describes family accommodation as a common occurrence in OCD consumers. [Read more…]