Warning: this piece includes themes of self-harm and suicide.
The pub’s courtyard is filled with the steady hum of many voices and the odd clunk of a pint glass hitting a table. In one corner, I am sat across from my friend Ashley, the pair of us chatting away over drinks in the late afternoon. In such a laid-back environment, you would be hard pressed to guess the topic of our conversation.
“Depression for me is just…nothing makes sense and everything is just such a big blackness. At the moment I feel like there’s something so wrong with me. I don’t get it, like am I that difficult? I try to put on a smile for work, I try not to let it get in front of me. Everyone thought I was fine, everyone thinks you’re fine but you’re not.”
For the most part, Ashley is like any other girl her age. At 20 years old, she has a loving family, plenty of friends, and dreams of one day opening her own restaurant. And like nearly 11 million other Australians, she suffers from a mental health disorder. More than a quarter of young people in Australia aged 16 to 24 currently have a diagnosable mental health condition, the two most common being depression and anxiety.
Ashley takes a gulp of her cider, trying to calm the nerves she admitted to feeling before we began. It is her first time speaking openly about her mental health with someone outside of her close family and professional support network. She seems a little nervous, but is determined to be honest during our interview.
“At the moment my diagnosis from my doctor is severe depression. I’m on 80 milligrams of antidepressants a day, I have to go to a counsellor two times a week and I’m on suicide watch.”
When I ask her if there was a certain catalyst or event which made her go and seek help she lets out a short huff of breath; it would resemble a laugh if not for the self-deprecation. After another sip of her drink, she begins.
“My sister made me feel really guilty about something I wasn’t telling my dad. And it wasn’t like a massive thing, it was about a speeding fine, I just wasn’t telling him. I spent the rest of my night in my room ready to kill myself. I was that ready to just give up and even now I’m still ready to just stop it.”
Is she hoping medication and counselling will help her get out of this mindset?
“Definitely. I think that’s one of the main reasons everyone does it. People just need that push of doing it, admitting there’s something wrong with them. With a little bit of extra help you’re gonna be fine.”
But this is often a harder step to take than it would seem. Young people are less likely than any other age group to seek out professional help for their mental ill-health. According to research conducted by beyondblue, 80 percent of Australian teenagers believe people their age will not seek support because they are afraid of what their peers will think of them. Considering the significant amount of young Australians with mental health issues, and that one third of deaths for this demographic are suicides, it appears the stigma surrounding mental health issues still permeates our society.
A report from beyondblue outlines some ways stigma associated with depression and anxiety manifests in our communities, including internalised negative views of mental ill-health and perceived discrimination of people with mental health conditions. The most common elements of the stigma include viewing people with mental illnesses as weak or dangerous, false beliefs of being able to control your mental health, and reluctance to disclose a diagnosis out of concerns about discrimination or harassment. While there is evidence indicating a slight reduction in stigma, further research has found it continues to have a significant impact on how people address the mental health of themselves and others.
By now, Ashley has nearly finished her drink. Our conversation has been harder than she thought it would be but she maintains she is grateful for the opportunity to speak truthfully about what she has gone through. Apparently, feeling important is a nice change for her, especially as of late. When I tell her I am glad she decided to get help when she did, she returns my smile with a small one of her own.
“What would be your advice to other people feeling this way who haven’t taken the step to get help?” I ask her.
“Just do it. It’s not like you’re not a strong person for needing help…sometimes you just need that little bit of a push and there’s nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.”
Ashley admits it took her years before she came to terms with her mental ill-health. Feelings of shame and self-loathing have been following her since the beginning of high school. But she never would have spoken about it with anyone back then; how could she when she was so naively preoccupied with fitting in? She feels sorry for her younger self, now that she can see how much she was struggling at the time.
“What would you tell a younger Ashley?”
She pauses, her finger tracing the condensation on her nearly empty glass. Eventually she seems to come to a conclusion.
“Just talk. Don’t sit there and cry or cut yourself or do anything like that. Make yourself aware, make yourself known. Don’t think you’re invisible. There’s just so much…there’s so much you can do, there’re so many opportunities. You have to realise you’re not nothing.”
It is widely agreed upon by professionals and patients alike: the importance of talking about mental health openly and honestly. Speaking up can raise awareness, remove the stigma, and even save a life.
Ashley finishes her drink and we get up to leave.
“Talking,” she says, holding the door. “Powerful stuff.”
Words by Dante DeBono
Illustration by Rachael Sharman