The Learning Cafe

My Mental Health Journey

  • Posted by Elysia Arnold
  • On October 9, 2018

What happens when your mind becomes your injury?

It’s Mental Health Awareness week so we wanted to share a thought provoking story from one of our colleagues about their mental health journey

A work colleague of mine recently fractured his ankle and is sporting a very colourful cast on his lower leg.  It’s easy to spot his injury.  Of course, anyone who has had the misfortune to wear a moon boot or indeed any sort of plaster cast knows just how debilitating it is.  Most of us in the office are trying to do what we can to help him; holding the door open, offering to make him a cup of tea, or collect documents he’s printed from the photocopier to save him having to struggle with these otherwise mundane tasks we take for granted doing.  Got me thinking, though.

You see, when your ‘mind’ becomes the ‘injury’ how easy is it to, a) know yourself that you are ‘injured’, b) let others know you are ‘injured’ and asking for help without being judged and, c) get the best treatment and services put around you.  At best, some people do recover from mental illness, for others it’s simply learning how to manage your environment (aka triggers) as the condition may be life-long.  The fact is though, this injury is, on the whole, invisible to everyone else, and their responses to help may be similar.

My family has now been living with a loved ones’ mental illness for two years.  We had no previous experience of it so it has been and continues to be a tough journey, but on the positive side, we have learnt heaps.  We learnt how our loved one lived in fear for months dealing with what was happening in his own mind, too scared to even disclose to his own family what he was experiencing.  We’ve also learned a lot about this health sector; how the Mental Health Act works; the support systems that are either evident or not, and learned about some peoples’ lack of understanding and therefore empathy toward those living with mental illness.

We’ve also learnt about the courageous steps being taken by some who have lived through, or continue to live with, the hell of mental illness. These people I view as ‘mental health heroes’ as they bravely expose their vulnerability by sharing their personal stories to help pave an easier road for the many that will, unfortunately, walk along it at some point.

One in five New Zealanders will experience some form of mental illness at some time in their lives (Oakley-Browne, Joyce, Wells, Bushnell, and Hornblow, 1989).  One thing is for sure though, the experience will be unique to that individual which is why one solution doesn’t fix all and thankfully the mental health inquiry initiated by the current Government is looking to address this.

One of the biggest barriers to recovery for a person with mental illness is discrimination.  When you’ve not experienced firsthand how your mind can play tricks on you and tell you all sorts of ‘untruths’ about how worthless you are; convince you that people are out to get you; cause you to physically be unable to get out of bed or even focus on one thing for more than a minute at a time….it can be hard to understand.  I have listened to my loved ones’ account of how daily life feels for him and I’ve learnt from reading about his conditions and all I can try to be is patient, better informed and non-judgemental.

One important step he tells me, is making it ‘OK’ for people to safely acknowledge those three words.  I need help!

We’re not a nation known to put up our hands and say ‘hey mate, I’m struggling’.  We’re famous for saying ‘‘she’ll be right, mate’, or ‘toughen up’.

Well, quite frankly, our country’s suicide statistics show that things clearly aren’t ‘right’ for a lot of people, particularly our young people.  Those iconic kiwi phrases may not actually be very helpful.   Telling someone to ‘toughen up’ who feels they offer no value to the world is like telling someone paralysed to get up and run.

So how can we, in our own small way, start reducing a statistic we cannot, as kiwis, be proud of?

It’s very simple. We need to care about people.  We need to have genuine conversations with our young people, friends, work colleagues, our aging parents.  We need to find out what is really going on in their world.  Until we take the time to connect on a personal one-on-one basis, and I don’t mean via LinkedIn, Facebook or a text, we don’t stand a chance of changing anything.

If you can catch things early for people, it may just prevent a psychological tsunami for them.

For the person experiencing very real changes in their thoughts, emotions or behaviours it’s about them having to be vulnerable  – a scary concept for anyone regardless of one’s mental state – and confiding in someone of these changes.  If they don’t seek immediate professional help it may simply be a friend, relative or workmate who has noticed some behavioural changes and has quietly asked ‘hey what’s up, I’ve noticed you’re not yourself – what are you feeling?’  It’s about spending time to listen to them, being a confidante for them.  You don’t have to hold the answers.  You simply just need to be a good human being.

I recently attended a talk that Mike King gave at a local school.  He talked about life being a series of ‘ups and downs’.  Some of the ‘downs’ in our lives can become pretty dark if we don’t seek help.  He asked members of the audience to stand who felt in a ‘good space’ right now.  About 70% of the room stood up.  To the 30% who remained seated he explained that they were actually feeling ‘ordinary’ at the moment.  To the upstanding 70% he said “you guys are feeling extraordinary and the only difference between you and those seated are 5 letters….extra.  You have some ‘extra’ to give to those who are feeling ‘ordinary’”.

That ‘extra’ you may feel today may simply be a warm smile, doing a random act of kindness, having a conversation to check in with someone, or it may be passing on the number of your company’s EAP services, or the website that gives someone instant access to 7000 services.  All of which could make a real difference to another person.

Mental illness does not discriminate.  Like any other part of our body, our brain can also sustain an injury as a result of our environment.  Just as many of us go to the gym to keep physically strong and flexible we have to do the same for our mental health – I’ve found mindfulness, meditation and positive self-talk to be all great mind strategies.  Simply being grateful for a small thing each day has been a powerful brain exercise for me.  My family member has tried to do the same. Despite the debilitating nature of his mental illnesses (depression and psychosis), his struggles have allowed him to launch a business which uses video game technology as a medium to not only help grow awareness of what it’s like to live with these conditions, but also provide an interactive aid to fellow sufferers. So in a unique way, he’s starting to be grateful for his struggles and what he has learned from them.

There is always a silver lining – we just have to be prepared to look hard sometimes.


If you need to talk to someone:
Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

0800 543 354 or (09) 522 2999 or Free text 4357 (HELP)

0800 376 633

0800 726 666

Mental Health Foundation of NZ
Healthline 0800 6110116