A Problem Shared
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This piece was written as part of the blog series ‘My Mind, My Story’ for Mental Health Month 2021. Reflections are by mindshare writers with lived experience of mental health challenges. Names have been changed to protect identities. Content may contain triggering themes.
Two years ago, my teenage sister, Lucy became suicidal. I hadn’t realised how terrible she was feeling and when she first tried to talk to me, I’m ashamed to say that I was so shocked and bewildered that I shut down. Instead of talking to her, I tried to ignore the problem. I was so scared of saying the wrong thing that I said nothing. I made excuses so I didn’t have to deal with the situation. I had no experience discussing mental health – no one had ever opened up to me before. It was uncomfortable and confronting. I felt powerless and there was also a part of me that worried about how other people would react – we didn’t have mental illness in our family, it was something that had always happened to other people.
In those first days, I let Lucy down badly. I couldn’t calm the chaos in my own mind to begin to help her. I hid away and poured myself into my writing instead.
But what I found was that everything I wrote was dominated by themes of depression and suicide. One piece – in which a mother lost her teenage daughter to suicide – consumed me for days. In the story, the mother spends her lifetime building a time machine so she can change the past. When the time machine is ready, she travels back to when her daughter was a toddler playing on the beach. She begins to sort and remove every sharp pebble from the sand, determined to eradicate every possible cause of pain from that moment forward and change her future.
The piece summarised exactly how I felt at that time – desperate and hopeless. But I also felt guilty in a way I’d never felt when Lucy had been physically unwell. I thought that I’d done something to cause these new problems; that if I’d been more attentive and considerate while she was growing up, perhaps things would be different now. Should I have questioned her quiet, studious nature? Was there something I could have done, some way I could have changed her course to brighten her world?
I was looking at everything the wrong way round, trying to remove every sharp pebble so that in a world of cushioned smoothness, Lucy couldn’t possibly be unhappy.
But Lucy was unhappy, deeply unhappy. She was withdrawn and her mood was constantly low. Things she used to love seemed pointless to her.
Friends and family weren’t helping. We didn’t understand so we shied away from the subject and our habit of blaming ourselves just made things worse.
In the early days, we also inadvertently belittled Lucy’s challenges. We’d make light of things, buy her things to cheer her up, take her out and soothe her that everything would be okay. Because we couldn’t physically see Lucy’s pain, we underestimated it, thinking that as a family we could make it better.
And so Lucy continued to struggle and had the added burden of feeling that those around her didn’t understand, or worse, that she was dragging them down too, impacting their happiness.
Lucy began to self-harm. There were physical cuts on lower arms and upper legs and there were other subtler ways she chose to hurt her body such as restricting her eating. Lucy was really spiralling downwards. We finally realised that trying to cheer her up was not going to be enough.
When the idea of outside, professional help was suggested, the relief was visible on Lucy’s face. This was a huge step in itself and one which should never be underestimated. Accepting help is incredibly tough when you’re so low you believe you’re not worthy of others’ time. It was a positive step forward for everyone.
Lucy at last felt her problems were being taken seriously and we felt we were beginning to do something useful: ringing around for advice, visiting the G.P. with Lucy, and beginning to find a way forward.
The big shock came when Lucy was referred to a psychologist and we couldn’t find anywhere that could take her for eight months. (Since covid, this situation has become even worse, and many child and youth psychologists are at capacity with much longer waiting lists. The government funded, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, CAMHS, can offer risk assessments and swift attention to those in urgent need and organisations such as Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) or Lifeline (1800 632 753) are only a phone call away. Further community services are also listed at the bottom of this page).
Whilst we were disappointed initially, the delay receiving care gave us a crucial epiphany moment. There were many people like us, many people struggling, many people seeking help with mental health. With Lucy’s agreement, we started to talk to people about our situation and we found that talking really helped.
Lucy told friends at school and discovered they were relieved to share their own struggles. They told Lucy about quiet rooms that she could go to when she was feeling overwhelmed, about breathing strategies which helped quash rising panic, apps they used to encourage restful sleep, even apps that discouraged and monitored self-harm. Teachers and parents also reached out to our family to offer support.
The real breakthrough came, not when Lucy finally saw the psychologist, but when these community members banded together to form a support network. Friends and teachers checked in with Lucy and me, neighbours and parents invited my parents for coffee or dinner, or offered to cook a meal or run an errand so they could take a break. Our wonderful G.P. also rang regularly to chat and was a valuable resource for connecting with community events and experiences which destigmatised mental illness and promoted positivity. She also emphasised the need for the whole family to look after their own wellbeing – finding time for things we enjoyed individually, eating, exercising and sleeping well and talking about our own stress and worries.
When Lucy eventually went to see the psychologist, she was already in a better place because we had started talking. Lucy no longer felt completely lost or that she was the only person on the planet that couldn’t cope with daily life. The psychologist helped us understand Lucy’s triggers and gave simple, practical advice. And she told us to keep talking, to keep the dialogue going no matter how uncomfortable.
My attitude has improved massively since Lucy first came to me two years ago but there was thing I was right about – mental health IS something that happens to other people. It happens to friends, neighbours, co-workers, family, doctors, office workers, teachers, construction workers – the list is endless. There are many, many people around us facing challenges. We need to have honest discussions about these crucial issues because in our busy, ever evolving world, every one of us will reach a point where we are not okay. Knowing we are not alone truly can make all the difference.
I am forever grateful that Lucy found support, but I am equally thankful that her journey changed my attitude. I am proud to say that I have those difficult conversations now, with friends, family, and co-workers, even with strangers. Checking in with people and asking if they’re okay or allowing people to unload to a supportive ear only takes a moment but it can be life changing. Expecting to go through a lifetime of experiences without suffering stress, anxiety or worry is as unrealistic as removing every sharp pebble from every beach, but if we work together, we can carry each other over the worst parts.
Dear reader, here are some other ways you can seek community support in South Australia if you are currently waiting for clinical services:
- Join a support group, such as Grow SA, Adelaide’s Drop In Care Space or your local Men’s Shed
- If you are a young person, visit a headspace Centre in your area for free
- If you identify as LGBTQIA+ google SA Practitioner’s List or check out Bfriend
- Chat with someone who’s faced their own mental health challenges via the Lived Experience Telephone Support Service 1800 013 755
- If English is not your first language, call ASKPEACE on (08) 8245 8110
- To connect with First Nations controlled services, check out nunku.org.au or call Thirrili on 1800 805 801
- Tradies and construction workers can contact MATES In Construction on 1300 642 111
- Visit any of the following websites for great resources on mental health and wellbeing: beyondblue.org.au, au.reachout.com, sane.org, blackdoginstitute.org.au, ruok.org.au, mindshare.org.au
- Reach out to the SA COVID-19 Mental Health Line on 1800 632 753
- Call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14
- If you’re a parent, partner, sibling, or child caring for someone else with mental health challenges, contact Carer Gateway 1800 422 737 to ensure you get support too.