Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Reflections on the Sydney siege aftermath

It’s been a frightening and tragic 24 hours for people living in Sydney in the wake of the siege that took place in the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place. My hope is that in a small way I might be able contribute positively to the online environment and the mental health and wellbeing of anyone experiencing the range of emotions one feels after events like this.

The evening before the siege I happened to be watching one of my favourite episodes of the political drama series The West Wing (Noël, episode 10, season 2). Set in the days leading up to Christmas, the episode focuses on Josh Lyman (one of the lead characters) and his coming to terms with having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Earlier in the season Josh was critically injured by political extremists in an assassination attempt on President Jed Bartlet. Once Josh recovered from the physical wounds he seemed to be fine, but in this episode we observe the process of Josh exhibiting symptoms of what turns out to be PTSD.

Fortunately his friends see that something isn’t right and seek assistance from mental health professionals. They are able to work with Josh and bring his emotional suffering to light, make a diagnosis and enable the healing process to begin.

Here are four brief points I would like to apply from this episode combined with my own experience of coping with distressing events:

1. It is always OK to share with someone you trust how you are feeling in the aftermath of a tragic event, regardless of whether you are personally involved or are 10,000 miles away (as was the case with me when the 9/11 attacks triggered me to have a panic attack). 

2. It is wise to limit how much media you consume about the tragic event. Avoid media focused on speculation and finger pointing (e.g. criticism of the NSW police and legal system). 

3. Mental health professionals are trained to provide assistance to whatever degree might assist you if you think you might benefit from it. Many companies and government departments have confidential employee assistance programs with a hotline you can call to speak to a counselor. The online resource mindhealthconnect is an easy way to find mental health and wellbeing information, support and services (including free services) from Australia's leading health providers

4. If you happen to be feeling fragile right now, take heart from knowing that you are not alone in what you are going through - you’re not going crazy, people experience and recover from mental difficulties all the time.

I thought I would finish as usual with a music video which I have found to be therapeutic when going through hard times - music is a great healer in my experience.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The keys to mental health recovery

While there are many facets to successfully managing a recovery from an episode of depression or anxiety, the good news from my own experience is that there is an overarching simplicity to it. If I had to summarise I would say the key to my recovery and long-term health management has been a mixture of persistence, discipline, and inspiration.

In terms of persistence, two good examples from my own experience have been my approach to getting professional help and my attitude towards medication. Both can be highly sensitive topics for someone coming to terms with mental illness and therefore easily dismissed as being "just too hard" or "not worth it". I have needed to persist with seeking out the right help because the first doctor/therapist I saw was definitely not the right one for me, but once I did find someone suitable my health and wellbeing improved dramatically. Likewise with medication I’ve struggled at times with the process of trial-and-error (doctor supervised) and side-effects, but again my persistence with finding the right type and level of medication has paid massive dividends for my quality of life.

Regarding discipline, I see looking after my body and mind as fundamental to my health. This means I exercise most days of the week, I am intentional about what I eat and drink and make sure I get a good night’s sleep. I found these basic areas a great starting point to begin managing my condition.

Regarding inspiration, there is no hard and fast formula to finding it because everyone is different and it’s personal. From my own experience, relationships have been a key source of motivation and hope. The input of family members and friends have been indispensible to weathering the tough times and celebrating the good moments. There has also been a central spiritual component to my story, with prayer and reflection offering me solace and the opportunity to slow down from the break-neck pace the world can easily railroad us into.

Inspiration can and will come in many forms and from places you do not expect it. I can’t tell you how important things like movies, music and art have at times been to lifting my spirits or helping me to persevere with the difficulties of day-to-day life.

One important point I would like to make is that early intervention for mental health issues is so critical. Had my problems been identified sooner I would not have had the depth of crisis that saw me hospitalised and might have minimised the resulting long span of time it took me to recover. What my story does show, however, is that no matter how bad things get there’s support to help you overcome the obstacles that come with mental illness.

The good news is that how you feel when times are hard is not how you will always feel. Sometimes the darkest hour of the night is the one just before the dawn.

The video clip below is a beautiful song called Man Of Sorrows. It is one of the names given to Jesus in the bible, and is a title which I believe makes His life and message particularly relevant to those suffering from mental illness, as indeed it has for me.