A (Very) Honest Discussion About Mental Health
When pitching the idea for this round table discussion, I was surprised to hear more than a few of my colleagues name mental health as an issue of importance for them. As someone who isn't shy about discussing her own struggles (depression and an anxiety disorder), I found this both illuminating and alarming. I'm well aware, maybe more than most, that three million Australians live with anxiety or depression. Still, I was shocked to discover I was working alongside women who've had either touch their lives. Why have we never talked about this? We've debated birth control, relationship breakdowns and even death, but mental health had never come up. Somehow, despite our closeness in both proximity and friendship, a barrier of appropriateness had prevented us from going there. Call it political correctness, call it politeness—either way this reluctance to talk about mental health is a significant issue. It continues to contribute to sufferers feeling alone and misunderstood. (Which is, in part, why initiatives like R U OK? Day are so important.) So, in the interest of making ourselves vulnerable for a greater cause we got the Byrdie Australia team together to talk. I can't say it was the most relaxed or natural conversation I've had, but any momentary weirdness quickly evaporated as we each admitted to feeling a bit... atypical.
On the agenda: Anything mental health related. Early on in the conversation we discovered something staggering—none of us, not even those who've personally experienced mental health issues, knew the "right" words to use to talk about it. To me, that suggests that the possibility of engaging in meaningful dialogue (even amongst friends) is scarily slim. We're just too damn scared to say the wrong thing. So, will three women talking candidly about their experiences with mental health prompt others to do the same? Maybe, maybe not. That said, if reading the honest and open discussion that follows adds to a greater dialogue about what it means to talk about mental health, then the temporary uncomfortableness we each experienced (#RealTalk) was worth it.
Read on as we candidly discuss our own experiences with mental health, how it affects our relationships, and how we deal with it in the workplace—and, as always, we love it when you share your stories too. Grab a coffee and settle in, it's a long one.
Your thoughts on mental health, summed up? For me, it's as important as physical health. It's been a significant focus in my life, in one way or another, for fifteen years.
Must-sees and must-reads, mental health edition: So many things! I think Brene Brown's books are particularly powerful; I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't), and The Gifts Of Imperfection, are the two I like most. Might be cliche, but The Four Agreements was also a bit of a game changer for me.
Favourite happy-boosting trick: I have a few. One is a chat with my parents. Another is reading a book in the bath. That's what I do when I need to recharge my batteries or be alone with my thoughts. Yoga or a run around the dog park with my pup Hugo also works on weekends.
Your thoughts on mental health, summed up? The more people talk about it, the better.
Must-sees and must-reads, mental health edition: Running From Crazy.
Favourite happy-boosting trick: I call a funny pal for a laugh.
Your thoughts on mental health, summed up? I never thought about it until I was forced to through personal experience.
Must-sees and must-reads, mental health edition: I'm finding a lot of clarity and calmness in podcasts. Not doco style, but great women talking to other great women, like Monocycle, Pardon My French and Women of the Hour. I think gaining new perspective and hearing stories I can relate to has really helped me get through some mentally challenging moments this year.
Favourite happy-boosting trick: Leaving my phone in another room and curling into my husband on the lounge. Allowing myself the time to be cared for.
LISA PATULNY: What do you think when you hear the phrase mental health?
AMANDA STAVROPOULOS: I think of blanket terms like depression, bipolar, anxiety—that’s what comes to mind first.
LP: So you go straight to actual conditions rather than thinking of mental health as a concept in general?
ALISON RICE: I’m exactly the same. I go straight to bipolar because I know somebody who has it. I think you always kind of relate it to your personal life, and people in your life who deal with a mental health disability. But is it a disability?
LP: It’s hard to know the correct words to use. I generally say “mental health issues” but even then I don’t even know if that’s offensive because these are legitimate medical conditions we’re talking about.
AS: Maybe you just say illness?
LP: It’s interesting because we’ve already discovered we don’t know the right words to use to talk about it.
AR: I guess that’s the a big thing because nobody really does.
LP: What’s been your experience with mental illness?
AR: There is a person no longer in my life that has bipolar disorder. At the time I wasn’t made aware of it, so I was constantly trying to figure out a puzzle: ‘Why isn’t this person responding to me the same way they did the day before?’ Once you know people you can generally guess how they’re going to react to different things, but in that instance there was no predictability. I felt it would’ve been helpful for her to have clarified that with me.
AS: For her to have had the conversation with you?
AR: It was in a work situation, so maybe it would have been best for our manager at the time to have known at least. Then the manager could have said, ‘I won’t discuss her personal life but you might find it helpful to know she is dealing with a mental health issue.’ That would’ve made me a bit softer with that person or helped me approach our conversations in a different way.
LP: I find that interesting because it puts an onus on the person to disclose those things in a way, whereas if you had a physical illness you wouldn’t have to. Like you wouldn’t have to go around and tell people at work if you had hepatitis or HIV…
AR: …I guess those things don’t directly affect your colleagues. My take on it is that it’s hard to talk about mental illness when you don’t have one, but for me, from a leadership perspective, it makes it easier to help support that person. Maybe it’s saying: ‘I think it could help us as a team if we were able to make some part of this public, whilst also making sure it remains confidential.’ At the same time, a person with mental illness shouldn’t have to be an outsider or someone who’s 'got an issue' that everyone gets to know about.
LP: They’re such murky waters, especially considering mental health is such a blanket term. There’s a difference between having a disorder like bipolar or schizophrenia where it’s possible the signs and symptoms are less familiar for most people. I’m not suggesting anxiety and depression are less of a difficult issue, but there’s definitely more education around those.
AR: Some disorders are also possibly more isolating in the sense that in my experience when someone suffers from depression or anxiety it can be quite obvious that that person is not okay.
LP: Definitely. I have a family friend who has bipolar and I didn’t know for the majority of my life that that was the case. When Mum finally disclosed it to me, a lot of things made sense. He would do these out-of-character things like quit his job or sell his belongings and I would be really confused because it was all so sudden. Had I known [about his bipolar] it would have affected my understanding of what was really happening.
AR: Bipolar is the only mental illness I’ve got any direct experience with. Depression is interesting because I feel like we’re getting to a point where we can be more open about it. Beyond Blue and other organisations like that have created a lot of awareness. Having a social campaign behind these things means millennials can connect to it and share.
AS: Depression is not as much of a taboo topic anymore. People are having the conversation with friends and actually asking, ‘Are you okay?’ R U OK Day has made it more relatable and easier to talk about.
LP: Also, there are now more celebrities talking about it on a personal level, including post-natal depression.
AR: That’s where celebrities can have a really positive impact on society. Because women have spoken publically about post-natal depression I feel more prepared personally for when that day comes. I will be going into [pregnancy] knowing that that may happen and be better equipped to recognise how it can manifest itself.
LP: What’s your own backstory with mental health?
AS: I have had friends who have had conversations with me about having depression, so that’s been my main experience. Then more personally I feel like people our age are living in this weird world where there’s just so much pressure about everything, so I feel like everyone has at least a low level of anxiety these days.
AR: Our whole generation.
AS: Totally. I would say that of all my close friends, everyone suffers at least a tiny bit of anxiety. Whether that’s social anxiety, anxiety about what the future holds, work, how to pay the bills… It’s like worry, but the next level, where it can be crippling. I know I lie awake at night not necessarily worrying about anything in particular but experiencing a tightness in my chest. Once I identify it as anxiety I can take some deep breaths and calm down and get some sleep. I think people learning what those feelings are and pinpointing it as anxiety is important—it helps you deal with it. It wasn’t until I realised those feelings were anxiety that I felt I had control over it.
AR: My take on that is because of my own experience with it I can also identify when other people are anxious, but haven’t yet had that moment of self-discovery. The other thing for me is anxiety attacks. It wasn’t until last year that I had one and when it was happening I was thinking, ‘Am I dying?’
AS: That’s what a lot of people say it feels like.
AR: When it happens to me I think I am. It feels like an out of body experience.
LP: What’s been your experience of the symptoms of an anxiety attack?
AR: I sweat and I’m not sweater. Even when I work out I do not drip sweat at all. Once I was in bed covered in sweat and had the feeling of my heart coming up and out of my throat really rapidly. I couldn’t calm down and I started shaking and tried to go into the foetal position. I was thinking, ‘What is going on? What is happening right now?’ I told myself to start deep breathing—I immediately went to that, I’m kind of logical in that way—and I started to calm myself down. It was the scariest thing. At that time I didn’t know what had caused it so it felt like it came out of nowhere, but now I can identify the trigger. It was during a difficult time in my life which was also the first time I’d dealt with death. I projected those feelings of loss forward in my life thinking I’m going to keep losing people, which I think is how my anxiety initially manifested itself. The attacks actually became about the prospect of losing my husband, and that created this weird need to know where he is at all times of the day. Now when I feel it coming on, I have to get in control mentally and tell myself, ‘You know what this is, if you let it keep going you know where you’re going to end up.’ But you know, it's still happens and it’s overwhelming. Sometimes you have to just let it play out.
LP: The more people tell me about their anxiety attacks the more I realise it happens differently for different people. I had my first anxiety attack when I was around seven years old so I’ve dealt with them for a really long time. I have 'anxiety issues', as I call them, in general. The attacks happen in a really specific way for me and it’s easy to think that’s the only way other people experience anxiety. As it turns out, it’s not. I’ve also come to know what my triggers are and I can most often shut it down before it really gets going, but sometimes I just can’t. It’s a really awful thing to experience.
AR: It can just suddenly be upon you. I’ve done a lot of work in my relationship as well. We’re a very 'together' couple, so when one of us isn’t okay we’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ We have put steps in place in our relationship for when I’m feeling that way. Unfortunately, it’s usually when he says he’s going out to have a big night that I’m like, ‘You’re going to die.’ [Laughs.] Now we have late check-in points. I can see him on my phone [via the Find Friends app] which works for us. The joke is, ‘You think I’m where my phone is.’ [Laughs]. Some nights I find it tedious because I’m not that person or that wife. The trust is there, it’s just like please let me know when you’re in the cab.
LP: It’s a different thing, it’s not like, ‘Where are you? Who are you with?’
AS: It’s like please…
LP: Demonstrate that you are alive and your hands are functional.
AR: And give me a heads up if it’s warming up to be a bigger night than you thought instead of just rolling in at 3 a.m. Then I’ll actually be able go to sleep, rather than wake myself every few hours and go to that terrified place.
LP: I’m not that far off you in that sense. I don’t think I’ve thought about it that much before but I’m definitely that person. If my husband says he’s going to be home at 10 p.m. and it’s 10:01 p.m. and he’s not home I’ll be like, ‘Are you okay?’ He’s always like, ‘Yeah!’ I just need to know what time he will be home or I can’t sleep.
AR: I don’t care where you are, I don’t care how late you are, I just need to know approximately when you might arrive. Just let me know that you’re in a cab. But then if he’s getting in cab and I calculate it’s about twenty minutes home and he’s not home thirty minutes later… I think the cab driver has had an accident.
LP: And then you have to ask yourself when the last time was that someone you know was in an accident in a taxi? Never.
AR: Never! I know, touch wood.
LP: You’ve got to turn yourself around and get down off the ledge.
AR: That’s really what it is with anxiety is that nobody else can help you in that moment but you. I think it really just has to come from the mental strength that you’ve built up for you to identify what’s going on and regain control.
AS: I feel like in our parents’ and grandparents’ era anxiety might not have been such a huge issue. Now the news is at our fingertips. I read the news 20 times a day so I’m constantly being fed horrible stories, tragedy, death, car accidents… It’s always on my mind.
LP: I feel like I’m getting a glimpse into what kind of a parent I’ll be. My mum is definitely an anxious person. I see it in her and I’m like, ‘You made me this way.’
AR: It’s so interesting because I had probably the most relaxed parents ever. I was sensible but I definitely went out and didn’t tell them where I was. When I would roll on in at 1 a.m. they’d just be asleep. I’ll be tracking my children; there will be curfews. [Laughs.]
L: How would you describe your relationship with your own mental health and how its changed over the years?
AR: I’ve gone from being a very in control, capable woman to becoming hyper-aware of myself in the past twelve months. There have been difficult times in that period but overall I feel like a better person because of it, because I know myself better. I think maybe prior to that I wasn’t feeling all of the feelings. Even though it has come with baggage, I prefer the person I am today to who I was before, so I’ll take the anxiety attacks and perhaps the moments of sadness.
AS: I have been a worrier since I was little and to some extent I think I always will be, but I’m in a relationship with a person who’s very calming and grounded. I worry about stupid things like what my life is going to be like in five years but he reminds me to focus on the now. My relationship has been really good for me because the person I was with before was very much like me and we just fed each other’s anxieties. Now it’s about little things and certain routines I use to keep me calm.
LP: A therapist once said to me: ‘Worrying about things is not going to stop them from happening.’ She was basically saying if there’s something you can do about a certain worry you have then do it, otherwise just let it go. It’s like, if it’s going to happen then it’s going to happen.
AR: It sounds so simple, but when you’re in your biggest worry moment it’s so real. My whole thing has always been, ‘How did I get this good life?’ ‘Why’d that happen to me?’ You know? I feel that something bad is going to happen because no-one is allowed to be this happy or this lucky.
AS: I have those same thoughts and I think in part it’s because we’re surrounded by negative news.
AR: We expect it to happen to us. Awful things.
AR: I think what I’m hearing from all three of us is that we’re kind of lucky in a sense that we can actually identify our anxieties and have steps in place to deal with them. I couldn’t imagine a life where I didn’t know my triggers and was just in a constant spiral. Is that where people go off track in life?
LP: Like we’ve said it can be so terrifying. I once had an anxiety attack in my sleep and had to go to the emergency room. The doctors were telling me I was having a panic attack but I wouldn’t accept it. I had been having them for twenty years at that stage and I was convinced that wasn’t what was happening. I thought I knew everything a panic attack could be. I couldn’t breathe and I just remember thinking, ‘I might actually die.’ I couldn’t stand up.
Generally when I have an anxiety attack I hyperventilate and get claustrophobic, but I know there’s nothing I can do except pace my breathing which forces my heart rate to slow down.
AS: So you can work through it?
LP: I can now. There’s a point at which I have to force focus and tell myself, ‘You’re going to have a panic attack if you don’t stop thinking about what’s upsetting you.’ My backstory with mental health is complicated but in a nutshell I was diagnosed with depression at sixteen and that’s been something that followed me for a good ten years. The awareness of the anxiety came afterwards. I would say it’s only because I’ve been doing all this work on myself for fifteen years that I feel like I have any control.
AR: I’ve been dealing with it for twelve months.
LP: I think it was hard for me to deal with growing up because becoming a woman is hard enough! I feel similarly to you in that I don’t know that I’d take it back. I have such compassion for other people because I can relate. It’s also like knowing yourself on this really deep level that a lot of people probably don’t.
AR: That’s the general feeling I have now when I look back. I was always happy but I wasn’t really feeling anything. Now when I’m happy I’m elated.
LP: What do you think is the most difficult thing about dealing with these issues at work?
AR: It’s hard as a manager because you don’t have the option to say, ‘Today I’m just not gonna.’ You have to put the face on and that’s a big thing for me. I don’t want others to feel it if I’m not okay because what does that do to the team in the end? That’s one thing I’ve experienced before in a manager—I didn’t know what I was going to get and I found that difficult.
LP: As a manager yourself, what are your thoughts on checking in with someone in the workplace.
AR: One thing I’ve learnt is that it’s okay to say to someone, even your manager or your boss, ‘Can I help you today?’ The second question is, ‘Are you okay?’ I think that’s hard for people to ask because you think you’re not allowed due to this weird barrier. The moment I got comfortable asking my boss those questions we had a better professional relationship. I think there was a confidence I could take it even if it wasn’t good news. You can usually see when someone’s not okay, and the easy thing to do is just to leave them alone. What I’ve learnt is that it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid. It can come out as a bit awkward but you’ve said it. People react in different ways. Some might shut you down...
AS: And some will have been waiting for someone to ask all day.
LP: Do either of you feel as though disclosing things about your mental health could hurt your career?
AS: I don’t think today that it would have a huge impact on your work if you still come in and do your job. Twenty years ago, yes. Even ten years ago, I would say it would’ve similarly impacted your career. I think people are more understanding now and there’s more awareness and acceptance around it.
AR: From a management perspective what I can say is that when my team make me aware of these things I am a better manager for it. Then I’ll know what style of management I need to take or the days when I don’t push whereas if I didn’t know I would just continue to do my job. If someone has a mental illness and that’s confidential between them and their manager, that person is maybe more comfortable saying, ‘I’m not having a good day today.’ If I hear that I can help.
AS: So having the conversation is what’s important.
AR: Yeah, and I don’t think you have to have it in the interview. [Laughs.]
LP: We are lucky to work in an industry which is a lot more open about this sort of thing, and also for a company that places value on creating a supportive environment. I think there are definitely people who work in jobs where they couldn’t put their hand up about whatever their issue or illness might be. We’ve talked about a few in particular like bipolar, depression and anxiety but there’s so many.
AS: I guess we work in an industry that supports and helps raise awareness for these illnesses so it would be quite hypocritical if it weren’t also accepting.
AR: Yeah for sure. If you are a partner in a law firm, it might be different.
LP: Exactly. For instance, how many people do you know that would opt to hire a barrister that is open about living with schizophrenia? There’s still so much stigma and misinformation. Discrimination against people with mental health issues is just kind of accepted as legitimate.
AR: I agree with that. There have been multiple cases in other jobs where it just goes swept under the carpet for that reason and that person may eventually leave because they don’t have that support network around them.
LP: What are the worst comments you’ve heard around mental health?
AR: ‘She’s crazy.’
LP: We say that in a very blasé way I think. I’m sure I’ve said that a lot.
AS: People say, ‘I’m so OCD,’ and throw that around lightly.
AR: When people actually suffer from that illness and it’s crippling.
AS: Yeah it would be. If you suffer from that illness to hear it being thrown around lightly wouldn’t feel very nice. It’s almost the same as saying, ‘That’s gay,’ meaning that something is lame, which was a thing when we were kids.
LP: It’s almost like we need to train ourselves out of it.
AS: When I do say it, I stop myself and apologise.
AR: I think that’s so important that you’re confident enough to do that because a lot of people say stuff and just think oopsie.
LP: What tools do you rely on?
AR: Well I guess I have my healer, which is what I call her now. In the past six months I’ve been able to identify that this person plays that role in my life, but I hadn’t actually acknowledged it before then. I didn’t acknowledge that I needed help and what she was saying didn’t land with me every time. Now I’m actually letting it sink in and processing and writing down her advice, and I’ll go back and review it. She’s the person who asks me if I’m okay, and she creates a safe space for me to say, ‘No, I’m not, and here’s why.’
I’ve also done a lot of googling. I think our generation goes online for answers to everything. I don’t condone self-diagnosing via Dr. Google but I do think for general fact-finding it can help. Some of my searches have included ‘how to deal with death’, ‘signs you’re grieving’, ‘what to say when someone’s died’. It’s all stuff you feel you should just know, but if you haven’t been through those experiences you don’t. I also discovered that post-traumatic stress syndrome was a real thing online. When I read up on it I was like, ‘That’s me’. I found that early on and it gave me a timeline for if you’re not feeling back to normal by around this point go and seek help. It was helpful to have almost a benchmark for my feelings so I knew not to let it go too far.
Having a relationship with someone I trust that I’m able to be really truthful with is key. It is welcomed in our marriage to say, ‘I’m not cool right now’. Our relationship is so fun and happy and we laugh so much that it’s easy to not address any of the deeper stuff. But we’ve gotten better as a couple at having those conversations—it’s like our own little therapy in a way.
AS: For me, it’s talking about things and not being so internal. I’m going to start switching off a bit more too. I don’t need to read the news a 1000 times a day. I don’t need to expose myself to that unnecessary noise.
LP: If you worry at night I highly recommend programming your phone to set itself to do not disturb from 8:30 p.m.
AS: I’m fine scrolling through Instagram and Snapchat, but I find Facebook such a negative environment.
AR: It is a negative environment; I try and stay off there too.
LP: It’s impossible to read anything on Facebook without seeing people trolling the comments.
AR: I want to know your tools because I feel like I would use some of them.
LP: I’ve read probably 45 bazillion books about all sorts of things to do with mental health and I feel that that has helped me as I am always on this path of self-discovery.
AR: Is there one you would recommend off the top of your head?
LP: There is a series of books by an author called Brene Brown around shame. Oprah loves her, which is how I heard about the books…
AR: All good things in life come from Oprah!
LP: Yes! But when I first heard about Brene Brown I did not get the concept of shame. I didn’t think it was for me. Once I started reading up on it I realised it actually was. I'm pretty sure we all have issues around shame, if not suffering from it ourselves then maybe shaming others without knowing the weight our words can carry.
There’s another book called The Inner Gym ($13) I love. The concept behind that one is that your brain needs to be exercised regularly, just like your muscles, to be healthy. I also love Headspace which is the only meditation app I’ve ever used where I’m not sat there thinking, ‘When will this be over?’ I’ve just started listening to a podcast called On Being, which is cool. I have a lot.
AR: TED Talks are good because they’re around 15 minutes so you don’t have to go on this massive journey. They’re quite bite-sized.
LP: I also take supplements. This is weird but sometimes when I have a sad day I’ll be like, ‘Gotta get those Omega-3s,’ and take some capsules or decide I’m having salmon for dinner. [Laughs.] I am also lucky to have a husband who is so good with this stuff. He is the most laidback, cruisey person and always very upbeat, so it’s quite foreign to him. But I can come home and say, ‘I feel sad today,’ and he’ll give me a hug and a place to talk about it if I want to. It’s a vulnerable place. It’s scary to say, ‘I just want you to be there so that I can be honest and say I feel weird and maybe I don’t know why, but I just need to sit in it until I work it out or it goes away.'
AR: And not have that person who’s like, ‘You could go for a run? Why don’t you try drinking orange juice?’ It’s those times that become defining in your relationship. I think it’s good to rip the Band-Aid off and say, ‘I’m not okay today,’ versus coming home and being alone and silent.
AS: There’s definitely going to be s*** times in the course of a long-term relationship. It’s just acknowledging that that’s fine and expected, and that you’ll move on from it eventually.
LP: I think relationships are so important in maintaining your mental health. It doesn't have to be a husband or boyfriend, just someone who creates that safe judgement-free space. It could be a friend, a therapist, someone from church if that's what works for you.