I work full time in the Commonwealth Public Service in Canberra. I have done this since 2007. I have a very good income, an education and a mortgage. I wear suits to work. Money is not an issue for me and has not been an issue for a good while. I also have a severe mental illness. When I moved to Canberra in 2007 I decided – after years of seeing a psychiatrist – that I would access my medication through a GP and not find myself a psychiatrist. I had been ‘well’ for many years at that point and imagined that I would continue to be so into the future.
Fast forward a few years and I had a year of stresses. Firstly I applied for a promotion at work and was successful. For some reason I became extremely anxious about the application and the anxiety took on a life of its own. I should have heard the warning bells at this point for that kind of ongoing anxiety with no actual trigger had brought about mental illness episodes in the past. But, content in the knowledge that I was a middle manager in the public service and surely mental illness couldn’t touch me, I ignored it and continued being successful. A couple of months later and I had issues with the lovely little flat I had just purchased. The apartment upstairs had a leak which went down the wall into my kitchen. Shortly afterwards I had to replace my shower and there was a comedy of errors between the plumber and the tiler. This triggered severe anxiety which lasted for six months. I could’t look at any part of my house without my heart racing. After a few months I started to have some odd experiences: I became terrified of a ghost in my house, but I couldn’t tell anyone about it as the ghost would hear me and try to kill me. I firmly believed that I was dead and in purgatory, I thought i had angered God by being arrogant, Everything looked very strange – almost like it was alive. Added to this I became very depressed. I did not access help because it didn’t occur to me that I needed it.
By the time I sought help I was extremely unwell. Then began a period of about three months of unsuccessfully trying to access assistance from the mental health services and begin told that I didn’t need it. ‘Did you go to work today?’ the person on the phone would ask. When I responded that I had been at work they would dismiss any concern I raised. The assumption was that if I was going to work then surely I couldn’t need any help? Yes, I was attending work and somehow managing to perform at the expected standard. Here is a list of other things that were going on which the mental health services neglected to ask me about:
- I would’t use the shower thinking it was leaking and instead washed with a bar of soap and a bucket of warm water
- I would’t use the washing machine because I thought it was broken. I instead did all my washing by hand
- I didn’t cook and consisted on a can of dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) and a block of Lindt pistachio chocolate each night (I don’t know what the supermarket staff thought about my idiosyncratic purchases)
- I was absolutely terrified of the ghost in my house but couldn’t mention it because he (the ghost) might hear.
- Everything I looked at seemed to be alive
- I couldn’t leave my house for fear it would be destroyed while I was away.
Had one of the mental health workers asked about these things they may have had a different response. After three months of knowing I was unwell but not knowing how to access help I was terrified that I would be unwell for the rest of my life – which at that point didn’t seem likely to be a very long time – and to have no treatment.
What followed when I inevitably ended up in hospital was that I spent the next three years in and out of hospital, residential programs and other such (expensive) things. Had I received help earlier I imagine I may not have needed such intense assistance.
What all this illustrates – among other things – is that people like me who do not fit the rather narrow stereotype of people with serious mental illness can struggle to get any help at all. The scary things about this include that a number of people may be in danger due to this – I know I was. Also, the amount of frustration and suffering people like me experience when unable to get help is quite high and there are a lot of people in the same situation. I know. I have met a bunch of them! The other issue is around what having such a stereotype means for the people with mental illness who aren’t professional employees. When I was in hospital I often had nurses say to me ‘Why don’t you go on the pension? Working must be stressful.’ The assumption is that people with mental illness can’t work and that if we do the stress is detrimental to our health. So we ‘shouldn’t’ work and if we do, we either get overlooked for assistance or we are told to fit the stereotype by leaving our job.
I’m not going to draw a lot of inferences from any of this as it speaks for itself but it is far from ideal.
And for the record my job is the best thing I have (other than Mr Kitty!). It is good for my mental health.
Me at work