I’d moved to Australia just before Christmas in 2001. Beyond the people I’d started working with, I knew nobody as I settled into life in Sydney.
Australians are a pretty friendly bunch, but Christmas was a difficult time period for me to arrive – people naturally tend to withdraw to their close family and friend groups during this time.
This left me as an outsider, which was very difficult to deal with. I did some volunteering work for a Christmas Day lunch which was great, but then I ended up back at home alone again.
Boxing Day was a beautiful day, so I decided to try and boost my mood by heading to the Botanical Gardens to read in the sunshine. When I got there, I couldn’t even bring myself to open the book, cause all I could see was people celebrating together while I was there alone. It was a truly devastating feeling. I took myself off home to bed and didn’t get back out of bed for three days.
I’d originally been diagnosed and treated for depression ten years before, so I knew what was happening, but that didn’t make it any easier to cope with. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t have anyone to ask for help.
I was lucky to find a great GP who helped me get on medication straight away and connected me with a psychologist who was extremely helpful.
It was also at this time that I came across SANE while searching the internet for information and resources.
The SANE website in particular was invaluable to me at that time, because it helped me understand what was happening to me and what I could do to help myself. It set me on the path to learning more and managing my recovery.
SANE gave me facts, not fiction and sensationalism. SANE helped me to understand what mental illness is, without the scare factor that some other organisations used to promote their activities.
I also valued the information SANE provided for friends, family and carers on what to expect and how to help when somebody isn’t feeling mentally well. No other organisation seemed to have that information available at the time.
A few years later, I went on to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and embarked on another journey to understand how to manage my own mental health. The SANE website proved invaluable again as I learned about bipolar disorder and could help my family to understand what it was – and what it wasn’t. They were living in different countries at the time, so having the information available via the internet made it easier.
It was when I was at home alone at 2am in the morning that I discovered the value of the SANE forums. I could log in and connect with others who were awake and willing to share their experience.
Having that connection and community with people who understood my situation whenever I needed it, even in the middle of the night, stopped me from feeling scared about my situation. It gave me so much comfort to know I wasn’t alone.
The forums not only helped me, they’ve also given me the opportunity to help others by sharing my experiences of living with bipolar disorder. I could join different discussion threads and help answer questions from my own experience about anything from the importance of balancing medication to employer reactions.
Just knowing that it’s there is helpful, even if I don’t access it all the time.
Loneliness is a funny thing. People may choose to be alone, but no-one would choose to be lonely.
The trouble is, it’s so easy to feel lonely – you can be lonely even in a crowd of people.
That experience in Sydney was crushing, but it was a trigger for me to seek help. There didn’t seem to be any reason to do anything at all. The loneliness took every ounce of joy away.
Having mental illness can make loneliness worse, too. I’ve had times when I was surrounded by good friends and still felt desperately alone because they didn’t understand what I was going through, even though they sympathised.
Feeling part of something is just as important as feeling well. A community of whatever type you want is so important. Whether its family, friends or an online forum, it gives you that sense of belonging.
Sometimes when you’re at that point when there’s nothing around you because of that loneliness, it’s hard to see that community.
The most important thing to know you can ask for help – it’s actually the strongest thing you can do.
Using the forums
When I was dealing with a change of medication but also a change of doctor, I used the forums a lot. I had a lot of nervousness about it, so I asked my forum friends for tips and their responses gave me the sense check I needed to feel confident about it.
There was a time when I was moving cities, flying in and out, changing jobs and lifestyle routine and changing doctors, and this created several stressors for me, all at the same time. Having my forum friends available at any time for questions and conversations was so valuable and reassuring.
Knowing people are there gives me a sense of support. When I was worried that I was the only one in the world, it was so reassuring to know I wasn’t alone. There were people I could ask without judgement. Even if they didn’t have the answers, they knew how to empathise with my situation – they just got it.
The forum is filled with people who are ready to talk about things. They’ve come from so many different backgrounds, and it’s not just people living with mental illnesses, there’s also family, friends and health professionals.
Some forum users are new to the experience, others have been around a long time. Some are looking for information and others are just looking for camaraderie.
Knowing that there are so many different backgrounds – people with lived experience, carers, healthcare professionals – makes it such a rich community of minds, brains and hearts. I consider some of the people I’ve met on the SANE forum to be good friends.
I think the structure of the forum liberates people because it’s live, but not face-to–face – you’re not having someone looking at you, or looking at someone else. People can also be more comfortable writing about their experiences than talking about it, even over the phone. Having an online forum can be a little bit of a shield, you feel safe that you can share anything if you choose to.
After being diagnosed again with depression in 2002, I volunteered to do a SANE fundraising activity and I loved it. After moving to Adelaide, I became a Peer Ambassador and did quite a lot of volunteering including writing blog posts and speaking about my experience in different workplaces.
I also supported the StigmaWatch program, as working in media and communications myself, I could see how influential it was. I could also under how inappropriate or inaccurate media stories could upset or offend, or give an inaccurate picture of mental illness.
SANE has a lot of information now for workplaces, I’ve recommended the SANE website and forums to a number of my colleagues to over the years.
Being a Peer Ambassador
The most rewarding experience for me as a Peer Ambassador has been making a difference to other people’s lives. Recovery from poor mental health isn’t just all about what drugs you should take or how much quinoa you should eat, it’s about listening and supporting, being compassionate and not judging.
Workplace mental health
I think the forums are particularly useful for workplaces, which have traditionally been a little token with their acknowledgment of mental health. Thank goodness things have changed - while there’s still a long way to go, I’m so glad to see more meaningful change afoot.
I’ve noticed that mental health has become very important in several fields, such as financial services, utilities and the defence industry. There’s only been a few workplaces where I’ve been open about my mental health condition, driven mainly by my own self-stigma.
I had an experience once where I shared that I had bipolar disorder during psychometric testing. Two days later, I was called into my supervisor’s office where I was ‘let go’ and basically escorted off the premises. Although they initially cited other reasons, it eventually came out that they felt that I couldn’t cope with the stress of the job.
I knew that their decision was clear discrimination, but as I was in a probationary period, I felt powerless to do anything about it for myself. This actually drove me to do even more for SANE, because I didn’t want anyone else to have to be put in that situation.
Even thought it was an unpleasant experience for me at the time, it taught me an important lesson about how little employers and workplaces understood mental illness. The lack of knowledge caused uncertainty and fear, simply because the employers didn’t have the information available.
Mild depression and anxiety have become better understood, so there is naturally more support and resources available for that group. Things like Mental Health First Aiders, RUOK Day and the Movember movement’s focus on men’s mental health has really influenced this in workplaces, but stigma is still a big issue.
Stigma throws so many hurdles up for people like me in workplaces, and it’s time that we address it. That’s why I continue to support the important work that SANE does – so the help they’ve given me over many years can help others to understand how they can manage their own mental health.