health

'When I presented to hospital for my mental health, this is what a nurse asked me.'

This week, 7-13 October, is Mental Health Week, which aims to improve awareness and interest in mental health and wellbeing.

Warning: The following story deals with suicide and may be triggering for some readers. 

The prevailing message around mental health is alarmingly simple.

In light of recent research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that found suicide remains the leading cause of death in young people, we tweet and comment and rally with a four-word solution: just ask for help.

Help-seeking, especially in the early stages of suicidal thinking, is a crucial part of suicide prevention. It’s no exaggeration to say that asking for help saves lives.

But the distance between asking for help and actually getting the right help is rarely paved with a clear, linear path. It’s rocky and sometimes steep, and often veers in discouraging directions before a person can see a promising destination.

At 25, Honor Eastly found herself feeling like she wanted to die. At that point, she’d been asking for help for 10 years – and getting appointments with mental health professionals intermittently. Over the course of that decade, she’d seen five different psychiatrists.

“Something was wrong and getting worse but they had no idea why,” she says in her ABC podcast No Feeling is Final. “All my efforts towards wellness had been intense but my stay was unyielding.

“My doctors and psychologists were at a loss. All agreed that I needed to see a psychiatrist. Now. But the process of finding one was chaotic at best.”

Honor describes the cruel dichotomy that exists in the Australian mental health system. “You’re always in one of two camps. Either the ‘you’re not that f*cked up’ camp or the ‘woah, red alert, crazy lady coming through’ camp. There really is no in between.”

“If you’re in the ‘not that f*cked up’ camp in Australia, you can get 10 subsidised sessions a year with a psychologist, and this works for a lot of people, which is great. And then there’s camp ‘crazy lady coming through,’ the kind with case managers and social workers and police interventions and hospitals and community treatment orders – bureaucratic speak for forced treatment. Things that cost a lot in terms of money and time and resources.

 

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Since we launched the six minute trailer episode I have been overwhelmed by the response, yes of people sharing it, but also of people slipping into my DMs and telling me the rawness of how it connects with them already. People having a good cry at work, on the tram, at the library. People feeling feelings. I have even gotten to hug a few of you in real life since. Quite a few people have been asking me things like “should I listen to this?” And “should my friend / aunty / brother listen to this?”. So I wanted to give a bit more info about the kind of show it is so people can make that decision for themselves when it starts saying hello to the world on a Monday (holy shit ???????? ) This is not a graphic show. As in, there’s no detailed description of any suicidal or self-injury behavior. We do try to explain what it feels like to experience despair, hopelessness. Early on when we were thinking about how we’d approach this our Executive Producer, aka Pod Dad @joelbwerner came up with this analogy about black holes (he’s a massive science nerd and we love him for it). You can’t observe a black hole by looking at it. You have to observe the space around a black hole, and see what’s happening *there*, to be able to see where the black hole is. That is the approach we’ve taken in this show to suicide. We talk about all the things that happen around the experience of suicidality, as a way of describing the experience of suicidality in contemporary life. And that’s because a big part of what we’re exploring in the show is what it’s like to feel really hopeless, and how the world responds to that despair. So it means we don’t focus on the graphic things, but the ways in which your life changes through crisis, how your relationships change, how your outlook changes. The subtle, nuanced things that can only be known by being there. (continued in first comment)

A post shared by Honor Eastly (@honor_eastly) on

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“But in between these camps, in the middle, there’s the vast wasteland and that’s where I am. In this nowhere place where the subsidised sessions barely scratch the surface, but culturally speaking we’re not scared enough to intervene further. The vast wasteland where people are struggling but not psychotic, struggling but not violent, struggling but not suicidal enough. Not suicidal enough.”

Instead of thinking the system was inadequate, Honor had told herself for a long time that she was just a “particularly bad problem”. That was until she really needed help, and at the end of every route she went down, there seemed to be an insurmountable roadblock.

When she tried to get help through her university, she was told there was no counsellor available at her campus. When she got a referral from her GP for a psychiatrist in East Melbourne, she was told that doctor wasn’t taking any more patients, and even if he was, it would cost her $475 an hour.

When she looked at the beyondblue website, there were only psychologists listed, and she knew it was really a psychiatrist she needed to see. When she contacted headspace, a free youth mental health service, Honor learned there were no openings for a psychiatrist, and at 25, she was almost too old to be eligible for their services anyway.

When she went through her workplace, Honor discovered she could see a psychiatrist and bulk billing was available, but the earliest appointment wasn’t for three months.

Research led her to the Australian Psychiatric Registry – which included all registered Australian psychiatrists and their contact details. Narrowing the list down to people who specialised in mood disorders and bulk billed, there were a total of around 30 offices to call. Several didn’t answer, several were disconnected, several listed the wrong address or contact information, and none had appointments in the coming weeks.

“All of this,” Honor says, “while periodically feeling like I wanted to die.”

“You’re on your own, left to fend for yourself. And at a time when, you know, maybe you shouldn’t be left alone to fend for yourself.”

Eventually, Honor found a glimmer of hope in the vast wasteland. She got an appointment with a doctor, who didn’t bulk bill, but there was only a two week wait to see her. It cost $395 for the first session.

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There was a language barrier, but despite some difficulties, the psychiatrist gave Honor a fairly definitive diagnosis.

“To put it vaguely she told me I was suffering from a disorder that meant I had too many feelings. About four times as many as your average person.

“She put me on a new drug and gave me a brochure for a year long psychological therapy program.”

For Honor, the diagnosis meant she finally had a name for what she was experiencing. It made it real and it made her feel like it wasn’t her fault. The diagnosis also gave her a path – a series of steps she could take to make everything okay.

Honor was referred to a year-long treatment program. She was finally able to actively do something to get better.

But when she checked into the psychiatric hospital, it wasn’t at all how she imagined. A mental health nurse asked her a series of questions, starting with the basics, like whether it was her first visit to hospital, and moving on to one she initially didn’t understand.

“You’re not going to give it up easily in here?” the nurse asked. “If someone tries it on with you in the hallway, are you likely to, you know…”

“No,” Honor answered.

She was then asked about self harm, and told, “that’s not that bad. Usually people with your diagnosis are a lot worse.”

Honor was advised that her diagnosis, in fact, was probably something she should keep to herself. “People might give you grief,” the nurse said. “The staff… some of them can be kind of funny.”

Even admission into a psychiatric hospital wasn’t a clear path to getting better – there were plenty more bumps in the road.

No Feeling is Final isn’t a story of hopelessness, and it’s not meant to discourage anyone from seeking help. Its purpose is exactly the opposite.

Honor Eastly’s story is just an honest account of how complex that process can be.

‘Just ask for help,’ is a convenient four-word slogan, but it needs a slight amendment.

Because for most people, the road to mental health is paved with asking for help over and over and over again. And continuing to ask – no matter what.

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Find out more about No Feeling is Final, and listen to episodes, here
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