And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touchdown brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no, I’m a rocket man
– Elton John
Sometimes being depressed feels like being the last astronaut on Saturn. Your colleagues, your friends, are gone. They took the last space ship home to their careers, their families, their restful nights. And you’re up there alone, cold, looking through two inches of glass at a landscape that is familiar only in its desolation.
You’re not really alone, you tell yourself. You still have mission control over your headset, tinny and distant. Your psychiatrist, your psychologist, your family and friends that you’ve managed to hold on to. They tell you that this will pass, that you will make it through. But then the Earth moves beyond transmission range, and you’re left with nothing but static and your own thoughts.
Moving through the world in this way is perhaps the most awful part of living with a serious mental illness. You have the support, the doctors and the pills. But when you’re trapped inside your own skull and it’s telling you that being dead is the best option, you’re completely and devastatingly alone.
I lived on a psychiatric ward in Sydney for two weeks in January. In some ways, it was the best two weeks I’ve had in years. Every day I had the opportunity to sit in group therapy and listen to my story, over and over again, told by different people. We were individual notes in a symphony, scattered across Australia, brought together by overdoses and ER trips, by failed medications and treatment resistance and loss of hope. It was liberating – realising how similar their stories and experiences and emotions were to mine. It was like walking over a Saturnian sand dune to see a motley group of fellow stragglers and left-behinders, beckoning for you to join them by the fire.
Coming back to Canberra was one of the hardest experiences of my life, because I lost my group of fellow astronauts. My friends and loved ones support me in so many ways, but common experience is not one of them. There are no group therapy programs for people like me in Canberra, no support groups, nobody to connect with except the Lifeline team and the beyond depressing Beyond Blue forums.
Which brings me to ANUSA’s Mental Health Day. I initially wanted to write this as a call out piece, full of vitriol and self-righteous anger at how poorly this event was planned, how uneducated the people behind it were about mental illness. But really, what good would that do? And if I’m honest, I don’t like the idea of putting more negativity into the world. I’m too tired.
So here’s the deal. ANUSA’s Mental Health Day catered to people looking to improve their general wellbeing, or perhaps with mild mental health issues. There is nothing wrong with promoting a healthy mental lifestyle, and opening up the conversation about mental health. But when you cater to that group of people, the group of people that don’t spend their free time visiting psychiatrists and hanging out at the ER, you lock out people with serious mental illnesses, like myself. I know, I know, “you can’t create a hierarchy of suffering”, “everyone struggles in their own way.” But this event could have been an opportunity for the astronauts of Canberra to take a load off, remove their oxygen tanks and find solace in each other’s company. How am I meant to talk about being suicidal over smashed avo on toast? What use is colouring in when I’m worried I might hurt those around me, and want to know if anyone else feels the same? How is ‘succulent making’ (whatever that is) meant to help me grieve the life I should be living at twenty three, the life all these other people naming their plants after famous philosophers have? I looked to the ANUSA Mental Health Day as an opportunity to find my people, and share. I found nothing of use. I knew that walking through crowds of people colouring in and doing body balance would feel as desolate as being on Saturn again.
While I appreciate that mindfulness is ‘so in right now’ in mental health spaces, what this event didn’t seem to appreciate is that mindfulness does not operate in isolation. It is not useful to colour in unless you are using that time to check in with your thoughts, notice unhelpful thinking patterns and correct them. Mindfulness is part of larger groups of talk therapy like Acceptance Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In order to run a successful mental health event, a deeper engagement and recognition of mental illness is necessary. I encourage the university and ANUSA to continue running such events, but hope that in future they will include people on both ends of the mental health spectrum.
It is possible to run a meaningful event for astronauts and those that made it back to Earth. It would be harder to plan and organise, and it would require more research and understanding from the committees that run it. It would have to revolve around cognitive strategies and mental illness literacy. But it could make a world of difference for people like me. It could even mean the difference between life and death. So with this think piece turned sci-fi novella, I’ve submitted my own Mental Health Day, for ANUSA’s consideration. Maybe next year you can join us up here in space.
I hope that this rough event plan might be useful to ANUSA in planning next year’s Mental Health Day. It is focused on psychoeducation and community building, and aimed at people with mental illness, their loved ones, and people without mental illness who want to understand and process their emotions more effectively.
If you or someone you know needs support, please reach out to the support services listed.
Beyond Blue Beyond Blue provides support and information on anxiety, depression and suicide. It offers a 24 hour hotline dedicated to crisis support for depression, anxiety and suicide prevention. Call 1300 22 4636.
Lifeline (13 11 14) A national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. Call 13 11 13.
ANU Counselling The ANU Counselling Centre offers free, confidential and non-diagnostic service available to all currently enrolled ANU students. They provide on the day appointments every weekday at 9 am. No referral or Mental Health Treatment Plan from a General Practitioner is required to attend appointments.