Reducing the stigma of mental illness

"I think we give each other permission to tell the truth" ... Catherine Know, Gidget Foundation
"I think we give each other permission to tell the truth" ... Catherine Know, Gidget Foundation Photo: Getty Images

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. This year, in Australia, the day’s main aims are to encourage help seeking behaviour, reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, and foster connectivity throughout communities. Two mums tell their own mental health stories.

When we think of the words ‘mental health’ there are often layers of experience that sit beyond our thoughts. Those layers can either make us feel connected to or further away others when they speak up about their own mental health experiences. But finding ways for people to share their stories can be liberating – and help raise understanding – for all.

Marnee is a mum of three. During her last pregnancy she was very ill with morning sickness, vomiting up to 30 times in a 24-hour period, and at first she thought her low mood was related to her health.

But she started to realise it was more than that. She cried continuously, she couldn’t sleep and simple tasks were a major effort.

“I woke at night with panic attacks and begged my husband to help me. This wasn't me, this wasn't who I was, who I am as a mother … nothing made sense,” she says.

“I started to think that my family unit would be better without me. It was scary stuff.”

“I try to break the stigma”

In an ideal world, sharing our internal thoughts might be met with empathy, but stigma and judgment can keep people silent. But for Marnee, separating her feelings from her much-anticipated third baby made it hard to speak up about what was happening inside.

She says that reading Jessica Rowe’s journey of postnatal depression really hit home.

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“I understood how she felt and that scared me. I sent the article to my husband, my neighbour and brother and said, ‘This is how I feel’. The next day I was admitted to hospital.”

Marnee’s daughter was born earlier this year, but the busy mum continues to access mental health support to manage any future relapses.

“I feel confident enough in who I am as a mother that I don't feel judged. I try to talk openly about it to try to break the stigma.

“Being completely honest, though, before I personally suffered depression I didn't realise how out of your control the condition is. You can't just snap out of it.”

She chooses to speak with honesty and a good dose of reality when confronted by the ‘I don’t know how you do it’ comments she gets when out and about with three kids under six now.

She talks freely about her diagnosis, saying that it’s now part of her and the story of her family. She has no reluctance in directing others to help.

“Call PANDA’s help line, talk to your GP – and if they don't seem right for you, see another.

“They were the darkest days of my life, I don't ever want to go there again, and I don't wish that on anyone.”­

“Being honest helps”

Catherine Knox, CEO of the Gidget Foundation, a not-for-profit service that raises awareness of antenatal anxiety and depression, understands how Marnee felt. Her own children are now adults, but she says, “Despite the passage of years, I often feel quite emotional when sharing my own story.”

Catherine feels strongly about providing women the space to speak about depression because, she says, “Being honest allows others to be honest as well … I think we give each other permission to tell the truth.

“Irrespective of the audience [at events and conferences], people always come and speak to me to talk about how anxiety and depression has had an impact on their lives. Whether they are stay-at-home mums, doctors or professional women, the impact of perinatal mental illness on many lives has been significant.”

Looking back on the lives of her own children, Catherine says there’s always been a distance between her experience of anxiety and depression and the lives of her children.  

“I look at my big boys, who are now 20 and 21, and honestly believe that any of their behaviour is of their own doing, not as a result of their unwell mother early in their lives.

“Our unique situation has led to my illness being seen as a separate thing to their life experiences.”

For information and support, visit PANDA,  Mental Health Council of Australia, or Lifeline Australia 13 11 14.

Sarah Wayland is a Sydney based counsellor and mum of two. You can follow her on Twitter

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