During the first year and for some time after being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I went through a grieving process for the person I thought I was and for the loss of my identity. I was in denial, I was angry, shocked and saddened by my diagnosis and it has taken a very long time to find peace with myself and an acceptance of my condition.
Mental illness in one of its many forms, affects 1 in 4 Australians, meaning most people will know at least one person with a mental health issue during their lifetime. Even with this incredibly high statistic, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness as opposed to physical illness and the old images of asylums and straight jackets still arouse fear and suspicion in people where there should be compassion and understanding.
The main reason I have been so willing to tell my story openly was to try and help break down that stigma associated with mental illness. When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I struggled with the fact there was very little information available that was digestible and helpful for my family and I.
I decided very early on that as someone working in the media and in the public eye, I was in the perfect position to tell my story to help others and therefore become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
In the years since my initial manic episode, I have for the majority of the time been very well which is not to say there have not been some very difficult periods for me and my family.
I have learnt that it is important to see stress for what it actually is – and that is a “fight or flight” instinct that we humans have which would have been useful when we had to spear animals for food or run from woolly mammoths! However, this chemical reaction to what we in the modern day consider being in a stressful situation is not so useful. Stressing out when you are in the queue at the post office because you are running late just isn’t useful – it is not a life or death situation!
I ask people to observe how they react in a stressful situation and whether or not that much emotional energy is necessary. I try not to let my emotions overwhelm me and I look at just how important the situation is in the grand scheme of things. It is important for me and for everyone really, to consider our responses and whether or not it is worth getting stressed about something outside of our control.
I think what many people worry about once they have had a mental health diagnosis is will I be able to function in normal life?
The answer, of course, is “yes” but not only that – you can live a great life.
I honestly believe my diagnosis is a gift, one that has allowed me to take an inventory of my life and forced me to take a good hard look at my choices and change what I can. I look back over my life and realise that although some of it is not pretty, I am also very grateful for what I have. I also understand the importance of being responsible for yourself and not blaming others or external situations.
I think it is especially important for young people and school students to be really informed about mental health issues and know that the stigma associated with mental illness is becoming less prevalent every day and rightly so.
There are many children living with depression or mental illness at home and by ‘normalising’ it, it not only breaks the stigma associated with mental health, it takes away the fear and equips young people with the tools to know how to help themselves and others.
I can’t just talk the talk; I have to walk the walk so I try hard to keep my balance between work and home a top priority! I enjoy work but I also include relaxing and energising activities into my week – I practice yoga at home, although not as often as I would like, as well as invigorating walks along the beach to reduce the chance of stress building up.
I don’t drink much alcohol anymore and I try to keep my use of social media down to a minimum. As a society, we are all so wired up to electronic devices and screens all the time – our minds are not designed to be ‘on’ 24/7 – it is no wonder people today feel stressed and anxious.
The harrowing experiences with severe episodes of depression have pushed me towards examining the big ‘why are we here’ questions and so opened up the spiritual side of my life that had previously been closed off.
As a community, I believe we all need to take responsibility for breaking down the barriers that prevent people from taking action before it is too late.
I want to keep spreading the message that you must not be embarrassed or ashamed about having a mental health issue.