I am an Australian woman. I am a university student. I am a dog person. And I am also someone who struggles with severe anxiety and depression.
It took me about a year to come to terms with the fact that the state of my mental health was not – for want of a better term – ‘normal’. During this year I experienced anxiety so debilitating that I would wait in my upstairs bedroom, busting to go to the toilet, until I was certain that no one else was downstairs so I could go to the bathroom in peace. Likewise, my depression was so incapacitating that whenever I came home from somewhere, I hoped desperately that no one else was home because the thought of having to interact with my housemates made me exhausted beyond words. I should point out here that my housemates, the ones I dreaded coming home or downstairs to, were some of my closest friends. Friends, who along with my partner had encouraged me at various points throughout the year to talk to a professional, but for whatever reasons – fear and denial – I ignored them. That is until I stopped finding pleasure in their company.
I saw a psychologist on campus twice before she explained that the on-campus psychological services are only “short term fixes” and recommended I seek further help from my GP. So I went home and made an appointment.
Three weeks later my much-anticipated appointment arrived and I was ready. I was ready to take the first step, I was ready to make progress, and I was ready to finally take control of the dark and debilitating illness that for so long had controlled me. I was not ready, however, for my GP’s response.
I explained my circumstances – how long I had been feeling depressed, the extent to which it was affecting me, and how my recent trips to the psychologist at Uni had brought me to this appointment – and was met with one instruction: “you’ll have to make another appointment, an extended appointment that goes for an hour”. And with that, I was ushered out of the doctor’s office, and her next patient was called in.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that my needs could not have been met during that standard consultation. That’s fine. What I don’t understand is how, having explained the severity of my situation, I left the practice without having been asked any questions. Do you have suicidal thoughts? Will you be able to manage until your next appointment? Are you self-harming? I left feeling as though my concerns had not been heard.
The next available one-hour appointment with my GP was four weeks away. Those gruelling four weeks came, and following that appointment, I was referred to the resident psychologist. I was thrilled, I finally felt like things were progressing. “There’s a bit of a wait…” the receptionist started. My prior feelings of optimism and relief began to fade. “The next available appointment is in two weeks”.
I was shattered.
Sure, two weeks may not sound like a great deal of time to wait, but it wasn’t just two weeks. It was the first three weeks before my initial appointment. It was the four weeks before my next one. It was that no one could see, no one would acknowledge the immediacy of my situation enough to help me.
In total, I waited nine weeks before starting therapy. Again, I understand that unless you have a medical emergency, having to wait for a doctor’s appointment is not unusual. But what about medical emergencies that aren’t physical? What about mental health emergencies?
The weeks of waiting that I did were some of the darkest days that I have ever had. I would come home, collapse into my partner’s arms and cry: I feel like no one is helping me. If I had a broken leg, they wouldn’t send me home and tell me to wait until the next available appointment. Why isn’t there an emergency room for mental health? That was the script. I repeated it over and over again in my head almost every day I waited. Something else I would consider during these moments of crisis was what if I was suicidal. I spent hours despairing at the thought of someone suicidally depressed having to wait so long to be treated. I spent hours imagining how this process could drive someone to suicide, while simultaneously hoping that it didn’t happen to me.
Considering the number of times I asked myself, and anyone else who would listen, Why isn’t there an emergency room for mental health?, I was both relieved and inspired when I heard Jessie Stephens asking the same question on a recent episode of Mamamia Out Loud.
Listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud below. Post continues after audio.
That episode reminded me that I’m not alone, something that people suffering from mental illness often forget. The episode also reassured me that I hadn’t just had a series of bad luck, but rather there is something seriously flawed in the way that our health care system – and more broadly, society – deals with mental illness.
I’m not suggesting that no one would benefit from undergoing the same process that I did, but what I am suggesting is that mental illness should not be treated with a ‘one size fits all’ approach. From the beginning, mental illness must be treated in accordance with its severity, and that means recognising, acknowledging and catering to the needs of a patient from the outset, something I don’t believe is possible without having some kind of emergency mental health service.
Earlier this year I was in no place, psychologically, to wait weeks – or even days – for the help I needed, but I had no other choice. A mental health emergency room would have provided me with that choice and in doing so, eliminated a profound amount of suffering. It’s hard to argue with that.
Madeline is a third-year university student studying a Bachelor of Arts (English and Gender Studies). A staunch feminist, Madeline is passionate about women’s rights, sex positivity, and social justice. She lives in Sydney and spends her spare time writing.