Illustration by Joanne Leong
I’ve been advocating for mental health for a few years now, but it was only recently that I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I’m going to be honest, life has been a struggle lately. It’s scary to watch your own health deteriorate, even when you’re doing everything in your power to stay well.
I can’t remember the last time I had an unbroken night of sleep. I’ve been sick with infections twice this semester. Getting up in the morning is a struggle. I have the attention span of a goldfish and I’m hopelessly behind on assignments.
It’s easy to fall into double standards. You’re emphatic that people with mental illness deserve your support. But there can’t be anything wrong with you. You’re just weak, or lazy, or overemotional. You’re overreacting; you have no self-control, and you should be able to manage by yourself. In your mind you’re the Black Knight from the Holy Grail. Your struggle ‘’’tis but a flesh wound’. You’re convinced you can keep fighting alone, even when you don’t actually have any limbs to stand on.
What motivates me to share my story is this: I’m certain I’m not the only person with this experience. Mental health issues are so incredibly common, especially in our demographic. I want people to realise that sometimes mental ill health is simply part of the texture of life, and it’s ok to not be on top of things all of the time. Resilience helps, but remember that you don’t have to deal with your issues alone. Accepting help can be difficult, but it’s also humbling.
I’m doing what I can to stay positive. I’m living in the good moments. I’m exercising, seeing friends, and giving back to the communities that support me. There are still days when all the coping strategies in the
world don’t help. I’ve got a long way to go. But I know I will become well eventually, and in the end I’ll be stronger for it.
If you met me, you wouldn’t know I’ve ever had mental health issues. I first had depression when I was 14, and from the age of 15-18 had CBT for OCD and Generalised Anxiety disorder. Recently I have been struggling with depression again.
What’s the difference between a healthy and unhealthy mind? A healthy mind is like looking through a crystal clear blue ocean and making out every feature on the seabed. When I’m healthy, I’m excited for life and for the future. But when I’m unhealthy, I’m looking through frosted glass. I might still do a lot of the things that healthy Eleni does. But there is a pendulum swinging in my chest. And it’s like there’s something in my brain that I can’t see through, and this distortion seeps through into my life. My time horizons shrink, and I struggle to see past the next day. The whole world seems to fade in colour. I feel lost. I sometimes think, “I can’t do this”.
The thing about when you’re depressed is that to me it doesn’t feel like my perception of life is skewed, and therefore it can be really hard to recognise that it’s depression making me think this way. It feels like I am facing a deep and buried truth that I spend the rest of my life trying to forget, and it is very overwhelming.
But depression is the lie, not life. Depression is the lens distorting the light of the world. And it is very hard to cope with feeling like you are constantly at war with your own mind, whether it be depression, OCD or any other mental health problem. And the work you have to do to stay healthy is tiring. It is draining knowing I’ve done worksheet after worksheet, read chapter after chapter on mindfulness and “fighting back OCD” and I am still doing that: fighting. It can be an exhausting fight. But having mental illnesses doesn’t mean that you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean that you’re broken, and have nothing to give the world. It just means you have to work harder to stay healthy so that you can do all the things you are absolutely capable of doing. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. And when we do stay alive, and we reach a day where we can say “right now I’m healthy”, we shouldn’t be ashamed. We should be proud.
One day when I was 15, I woke up and just couldn’t stop crying. I had no idea why I felt so sad, or if there was any cause of it. Within 2 weeks, I was in hospital being diagnosed with major depression.
The next two years are a complete blur. I have very few memories from that time, because all I ever felt was emptiness. I was unable to get out of bed for weeks at a time. I stopped talking to my friends, my family, and shut off completely from the world.
Luckily, one day I had a friend explain something to me that saved my life. ‘People would rather help you, than see you in pain and be unable to know how to help.’ When they said that, I made the decision to start treating my depression as a medical condition, rather than a problem with me personally.
It’s not easy to always remember this, because when I get sick, I feel as though I am a burden on everyone, and they would be better off without me. But with time, and a lot of persistence, it has gotten easier.
Now, I’m in a place in my life that, 6 years ago, I could never had imagined. Although there are still hard times, and my depression likes to come and visit every now and then, I’m ok with it. It makes me who I am.
Throughout my life I have experienced episodes of depression, anxiety and for most of my late teens and early 20’s an eating disorder. While it is commonly assumed that those experiencing issues are aware in the moment, the reality is that isn’t’ always the case. In my case it took me getting to what I would consider crisis points before I decided I needed help and then to actively seek it. For me this highlights the importance of mental health literacy on an individual and community level. Every person has the power to reduce stigma around mental health and has a role in helping prevent and intervening early with respect to mental health issues. Now I totally get this sounds daunting. There will be those of you who ask how? Some who ask why? And even those who will say ‘hold on what the frick is mental health literacy?”. So let me try and give some brief answers. What? Put simply good mental health literacy means having a sound understanding of mental health issues including some of the signs, support available and importantly a comfortableness speaking about them (though this last part comes with time). Why? This is easy. Current statistics estimate one in four Australian youth (16-24) will experience a mental health issue within a given 12-month period. For context, that would be around 2,500 ANU undergraduate students, 500 UniLodge students, 150 of your peers in your first year classes etc. etc. When you contextualise it within our (ANU) community you can begin to see the potential for individuals to make a positive impact. How? Well there are endless ways to further your knowledge. You may want to do Mental Health First Aid (FYI ANUSA offers subsidised training), talk to those who have lived experience, check out the internet (try beyondblue, headspace and butterfly foundation) and or make your smartphone a resource by downloading a range of apps which offer assistance (I’d recommend the Check-In App by Beyondblue). This simple act of educating yourself and being open to talk about mental health issues has an enormous impact on the recognition, management and prevention of people experiencing mental health issues. So there you go, the way to a more mentally healthy and help seeking society can start with you and grow from there.
If anything contained within this article makes you feel distressed, please phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit the ANU Counselling Centre (www.counselling.anu.edu.au)
For resources to support yourself or friends with Eating Disorders visit the Butterfly Foundation Australia (www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au)