‘I didn’t know I had a mental illness, I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 47’

Western Sydney Local Health District is encouraging people to think about their mental health. Photo: touchpractice.com

It is estimated that around two-thirds of people living with a mental illness in Australia do not seek professional help.

During Mental Health Month, we are being asked to ‘Share the Journey’.

According to the Mental Health Association of New South Wales, good social connections are important for our health and survival.

 “They help us with our journey to better mental health and our ability to cope with life’s struggles,” a spokesperson said.

 “They not only improve our overall wellbeing, they also build our resilience.”

An example of shared experience helping those with a mental illness can be found at Cumberland Hospital in the Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD).

Cumberland is a mental health facility that provides primary and secondary services to the local population, and tertiary acute, extended and forensic mental health services to greater western Sydney and New South Wales.

Peter is one of three peer support workers at the hospital and has been helping patients at Cumberland for the past 14 years.

He has been able to successfully connect and share the journey with patients after himself being diagnosed with a mental illness.

“Often people don’t know they have a diagnosis until something happens to them, where they have an episode and you end up in hospital,” Peter told The Pulse.

“I didn’t know I had a mental illness, I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 47.”

Peter works at Cumberland part time.

There are two other peer support workers in the community and the WSLHD is actively recruiting more.

“I thought what can I do when I get out, to improve the situation of people that are going through what I’m going through?” Peter said.

Peter spent three weeks as an inpatient and the experience really opened his eyes to the struggle faced by those dealing with mental illness, both patients and staff.

He set about working on how to improve things for the patients and the staff, and became a peer support worker.

“It can involve going to the units and talking to people ad hoc, seeing if they want us to talk to the staff on their behalf, or as I call that, ‘navigating the system’,” Peter said.

“So they understand a bit more about what it is they are going through, why they’re there, what can be done to help them and what they need to do to get themselves well.”

Cumberland Hospital supports people across their lifespan with a range of mental illnesses.

Peter said connecting with patients was easier once they knew you had a mental illness  – they wanted to know all about it.

“I don’t mind telling them that, because then that helps me find out what they want to talk about, and helps for them to trust me more so we can communicate better,” he said.

“If you can reach one person, that’s rewarding, then you have your days when you know, it’s not rewarding, it’s very hard … it can be very difficult at times.”

Mental Health Month is an opportunity for everyone to reflect on their own mental health and wellbeing.

It is also a good chance to learn how to look out for the people around you.

According to the Black Dog Institute, each year, around one in five Australians experience a mental illness.

Just under half of all Australians will experience symptoms in their lifetime and one in four young people meet the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness.

Peter is optimistic about the future outcomes for long-term patients at Cumberland.

The Pathways to Community Living Initiative program helps them transition into the community, finding them a place to live.

“It’s very beneficial because already there have been quite a number of people who have been moved from the hospital setting into the community and are going really well and there’s plenty more to come.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety or stress, there are a number of outlets that can be reached.

Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14

Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800

MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78

Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636

Veterans and Veterans’ Families Counselling Service – 1800 011 046