Hopefully you'll never have to think about what you would do if someone you love is struck by a mental illness. Who would you turn to for help? How would you hold your family together? How would you manage the demands of work? How would you look after yourself too?
From personal experience, I can actually say it was a worse experience than being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. When one of my teenage sons developed anorexia, it quickly led to him becoming suicidal and highly anxious. We had tried getting support a few months earlier for his disordered eating and over exercising from PE teachers at school that he looked up to, but that didn't have any effect. Before we knew it, we hit crisis point with our son confessing to wanting to kill himself: he was only 13 years old. My husband and I immediately took time off work, me thinking we'll get the medical help he needs in a week. How naïve!
We knew nothing about mental illness - after all, it isn't often talked about because there's still a stigma attached to it (whereas cancer has become acceptable to discuss). I tried to get help (information and advice) on eating disorders from my company's Employee Assistance Program (EAP). That's where you're always told to start, right? Someone in another state gave me the details of the one psychologist who they had available in Perth. I called her and she said she knew nothing about eating disorders and couldn't help me. So we did all the research we could online and read books, but what we really wanted was to TALK to another family who had been through this before, who could give us advice, hope and support. We couldn't find any such local peer support group, partly through not knowing where to look. The feeling of desperation and isolation was terrible.
A month on, we were still off work; we had been referred through our GP to the Eating Disorders Program at Perth's children's hospital and he had been officially diagnosed - no surprise for us there, but treatment didn't start immediately. We were both exhausted, our son was getting worse such that his fear and anxiety led him to try to flee from any unfamiliar situation and from our house; our other son was affected by all this as well. Picture a family driving and running round their neighbourhood desperately looking for a boy who could die from over exertion. We became prisoners in our own home and made several trips to the emergency department looking for help when he was suicidal, one of which resulted in him being placed in an adolescent locked mental health ward. That was our first taste of mental health services in Perth.
Meanwhile on the work front, I was trying to update my boss regularly on what was happening and keep abreast of email traffic, but I had no idea when or how I would get back to work. It was a bit pointless anyway as I couldn't concentrate or feel engaged. She was extremely understanding, but from a work perspective I had literally dropped the ball on my business development activities and she had to scramble to find someone who could double-hat for who knew how long.
And so it went on, and on. Medications were trialled on our son but didn't take immediate effect, or caused a bad reaction. There was no respite for any of us, though we tried in vain to find a community service who could help us, but apparently our son was 'too difficult' to manage. My husband, myself and my other son were highly stressed, losing sleep and losing hope. I started developing symptoms of depression.
We tried reintroducing a semblance of 'normality', coaxing our son into spending short periods at school with personal help from very compassionate and empathetic staff. This permitted me tiny windows of opportunity to get to work and try to pick up the reigns again. I talked with my boss about working a regular part-time schedule coupled with working from home, but that was totally unrealistic. We both would have benefited from hearing what we could expect in terms of the demands my son's illness would make on me and strategies to manage that alongside work from an 'expert' by experience - someone who had been through a similar experience and come out the other end (a peer mentor).
Fast forward to the third month and my untreated depression led to my own suicidal behaviour and I landed in hospital at around the same time my son became 'unwell' enough to also be admitted to hospital on physical health grounds. Hospital became a revolving door for me and my son over the course of the next 2 months. My husband spent Christmas that year in the car, driving between hospitals and home so that we could be together for a brief 3 hours as a family. By then, he was also on anti-depressants to stave off nightly panic attacks and my younger son was showing signs of depression too.
In Part 2, I'll describe how we all got back on track and reclaimed our lives. However, my message is the early stages of a mental illness doesn't have to bring a family to its knees in this way - early help to find the right support would have probably prevented or at least alleviated the knock-on effects of my son's illness.
Given that anorexia usually takes 2 or more years to recover from, we weren't going to be in crisis the whole time, but that's when we needed the most help, yet knew the least about where to turn. This is why peer mentoring is so effective yet it's under-valued and under-utilised, by individuals, mental health services and workplaces.
(To try to safeguard the privacy of people in the above story, I have not identified the other people involved by name. If you know who they are, please don't share that with others).
Have you got a 'Story from the Edge' that you would like to share with others about issues in the workplace that have affected your mental wellbeing? Do you need help now for yourself or a colleague or direct report in the workplace? Please make Contact.
- Stories From the Edge, Part 2: Back From the Edge
- Stories From the Edge, Part 3: Flying Off the Edge
- Stories From the Edge, Part 4: A Different Reality
- Mind the Gap: Working with a Mental Health Condition
- Should you Speak Out about Mental Illness in the Workplace?
- About anorexia nervosa - Eating Disorders Australia
- About eating disorders - SANE Australia
- Support for Australians experiencing eating disorders - The Butterfly Foundation
- Eating Disorder Program for children up to 16 - WA Child and Adolescent Health Services
- Eating Disorder Program for adults - Hollywood Clinic (private hospital in Perth)
- Community service for women in Perth to recover from an eating disorder - Body Esteem Program
- Information and support for carers in WA - Carers WA
- Information, support and services for carers of someone with a mental health condition in WA - Helping Minds
If you have other resources you would recommend, leave a comment below.