Photo + Interview by Nahum Gale
It was the first major South Australian lockdown in 2021. My friend, Brodie Winning, a student of Social Work, had just completed his 500-hour placement with the Department of Child Protection and, I must admit, I had not actually seen him for any of those 500-hours, or the minutes in between. In fact, I forgot the last time I actually sat down with Brodie and had any sort of intimate conversation with the man.
Brodie and I once hung out almost every second day of our weeks. We met at school and pursued a friendship ever since. We talked movies and music, old memes and travel stories (on the topic of which we even trekked around South East Asia twice together). But I am ashamed to say that, lately, we have not really had the time to just one-on-one chat like we used to. And it’s a shame, really. We were two young men, fresh out of school, and conversing as if we had the wisdom of much older, experienced people. We had the intimate conversations we were coming to learn a lot of men did not, and I doubt we recognised how important that connection was until now. Because now, we are adults with commitments to handfuls of work, whether that be uni work, “work” work, or just personal, intimate work on ourselves and close relationships. Sad to say, but the work on our relationship has taken second fiddle in some circumstances.
But, like I said, it was the first major lockdown for SA in 2021 and I was working on the Mental Health Edition when I had an idea. I approached Brodie with the offer to discuss social work through the lens of mental health for our Interview segment of the magazine. Now, Brodie was never always a Social Work student. Initially, Brodie secured a Diploma in Screen and Media at MAPS (Media Arts Production Skills) Film School with the intention of being a filmmaker. His sudden move into a Social Work degree almost came out of nowhere to me. The intention was to discuss social work, mental ill health, men’s health and a series of other topics that bound Brodie to the edition’s theme, but the other intention was to just have a one-on-one with my friend for the first time in a long time and understand, for myself, why he chose Social Work.
I have known you for around six years now and, out of everyone I have met in that span of time, nobody has shifted aspirations and commitments more so than yourself. When I met you, you wanted to be a film director, now you are committed to social work. Tell us a bit about that journey and what changed for you over those years that made you tilt towards social work?
Probably a lot of contributing factors, but I think one of the things that drew me to film in particular is that it is such an accessible medium and it is, generally speaking, a popular and widely accessible way of communicating ideas. From the outset, my aspiration in film had always been to tell stories I thought were generally worth telling in both an emotional and thematic sense, and I guess I really wanted to, through that, raise awareness of certain issues or stories that maybe are not typically depicted in media. So, there was always that social work lens attached to that aspiration. And I think, as I went through that journey, I found it to be a really difficult, really abstract process trying to kind of convey that through an artistic medium. The more I kind of worked on film sets, the more I realised my favourite aspect of the work, and maybe the most meaningful, was working alongside other people and building those relationships. And I think as well, as I have gotten older, I have become a better communicator and a better listener. More extraverted.
So, I think as that skillset developed, I really began to see myself in a way that was maybe less aligned with those original artistic ambitions. I found myself, through filmmaking, the whole time really feeling, not unfulfilled, but as though I had strength that led elsewhere. I had a great mentor at film school and speaking to him about it, his wife was a social worker and he was like, ‘if that is the kind of environment you see yourself working in you should study social work.’ And he was probably one of the first people to plant that seed in my head. And that seed kind of just grew and grew and grew until I graduated film school, fully well knowing I was never going to put that Diploma to any practical use, and then I enrolled at UniSA, pretty much immediately afterwards, knowing I wanted to work alongside people in more “that” kind of role than a filmmaking or artistic type of role.
“We are living in a mental health epidemic…”
So, going from helping people through film to helping people more hands on and being that you just completed a 500-hour placement at the Department for Child Protection, how has that changed, altered or progressed your perception of social work?
Placement was a massive learning curve. I have worked as an SSO (Student Support Officer) for the last almost 2 years, so I felt as though I had a handle on it when it came to working alongside people and working in support roles, particularly again when working with children. But with the Department for Child Protection, there was just heaps to learn about the specifics of being a social worker and how that differed from my own expectations.
It is really easy, during my studies, to look at those case studies and social issues or dilemmas and think of them as an academic idea and you can kind of write that in an essay. But when those dilemmas are unfolding in front of you personally and its genuinely your responsibility to come up with some sort of outcome, it can be confronting. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a really good supportive team there and, being a student, it wasn’t like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. It was pretty light caseloads, in comparison to the professionals. But it was definitely confronting to have to navigate those ethical dilemmas.
Considering the placement was not entirely aligned with expectations and, on top of that, was hours and hours of your time, taking out of your pocket and taking out of you mentally, how did that affect your mental health in general?
I found it such a hard experience. It was long working hours doing a role I was less used to or not quite expecting. And then there was coming home at the end of the day and knowing I made zero dollars from it and then having to get up and do it again the next day…
I was juggling part time work on the weekends. So it was, for a while there, a seven-day working week. And I just found that whole process really exhausting and I remember speaking to my supervisor at my placement about it and I think he tried identifying some strengths in me. He said, ‘you are probably working harder than anyone here, because this is all completely new to you. You are having to learn all of this for the first time as opposed to people here having worked in this environment for a longer period of time who are more accustomed to it and have built those better relationships with clients.’ So, I felt like I spent the whole-time treading water. I did end up reducing my placement from 5 days a week to 4 days a week just to give myself a day off. That was probably one of my biggest self-care strategies to help myself unwind a bit. It was heaps hard to find the time to do anything, juggling that and work and not really making any money.
Apart from being physically time consuming as well, it consumes a lot of your emotional energy, like you spend a lot of the day really trying to actively listen to and emphasise with other people and think about a lot of moral dilemmas and sitting in front of a screen typing all day. I think it used so much of my brain, like I would come home at the end of the day and feel shattered. But, in terms of mental health, I certainly noticed there were some days that I was in a genuinely foul mood due to lack of sleep or genuinely feeling burnt out or overwhelmed, particularly in those first few weeks where everything was still new to me and I was doing seven days a week, with no time to recover. I think it’s fair to say I was irritable and kind of heighted, and just finishing the day I would be feeling heaps negative, but I think reducing the workload helped. As part of the placement every fortnight you would get two hours of supervision where you would just talk through with your supervisor how things are going and how you are feeling about it. That probably helped a bit having that professional debrief. I did get through it and I did really enjoy it and the learning, but I would be lying if I said it was not a massive, massive challenge.
“I think emotions are super abstract…”
On the topic of the challenges you have faced in the past few months, how would you navigate your own mental health? How do you basically piece back together the shattered pieces at the end of the day? And answer only if you are comfortable.
I don’t know how detailed you want me to get, but I do take antidepressants. I have for about a year now. I realise they are not a magical cure. They were always something I was apprehensive about taking because I had heaps of mental health problems in the past, but I am glad I started taking them. I think they probably stabilise my baseline a bit. I have struggled with depression in the past and I find it probably prevents me from spiralling quite badly. In terms of quite on a chemical level, that has been pretty helpful. But I also quite like spirituality. Not as much in a religious sense, but meditation and breath work and staying present in the moment. I think that is tremendously important and really overlooked. For myself, I have always naturally tended to be an overthinker. I have a massively active brain and I find stepping back and almost watching your own thoughts as opposed to being consumed by them is a strategy easier said than done, but that is certainly something I like to do. I think talking to people is important, like I said, that supervision processes during placement, for example, and having that one-on-one debrief was heaps important for me to unpack how I was feeling as well. I think emotions are super abstract and often we, and for me personally, I am not even 100% sure how I am feeling. If I am feeling upset, sometimes I am not even sure why. So, talking through things and kind of understanding what has been a trigger, what has been upsetting, what has been difficult to manage, all that can really help name and identify those emotions and the things you are struggling with and the things you need to work on. That strategy I really like. And, I suppose, in the last couple of years, I have really gotten quite into exercise. I go to the gym, five or six times a week, and I found that helps me unwind quite a bit and, again, kind of keeps me present in the moment. It is hard to really overthink when you are physically exerting yourself. And, again, it has been proven to be good for your mental health, in terms of your hormones and endorphins. So that’s probably my main coping strategies.
Being that you have to deal with your mental health and then your whole career is going out and dealing with other’s mental health, how have you found the strains of mental health has impacted your chosen field of social work?
When I first enrolled in social work at UniSA, I had this sense of imposter syndrome, in a way. It felt almost hypocritical to want to go and assess and intervene in other people’s mental health problems, knowing full well I had my own. And it was always in the back of my mind, like I said everyone brings their values and biases into a conversation and my mental health may impact my perception of others and my general mood and ability to cope with it all. But I think we live in a society where we are slowly normalising mental health a bit, like I feel a lot more comfortable talking about it than I did five or so years ago and I think we are getting better at that. And I think, even in terms of social work as well, speaking with people I was working alongside in placement or even fellow students, it’s so common to hear about other people’s lived experience with mental health and mental health issues and diagnoses. I think recognising that every individual does have their own struggles in that area probably brought me a great deal of solace in that I wasn’t alone and I don’t think it is impossible, I actually think it’s quite common, to go into social work or human services fields with struggles of your own.
“I think we live in a society where we are slowly normalising mental health a bit, like I feel a lot more comfortable talking about it than I did five or so years ago and I think we are getting better at that…”
What are your thoughts on the systemic influences of mental health?
One of the big things about mental health currently, as a society, is we are growing a lot more aware of mental health issues. Like I said, I think we have substantially normalised talking about it and there are a lot of ad campaigns, like RUOK, particularly around men’s mental health and how it is “not weak to speak”. I think we are really encouraging people to open up about their mental health, but we are still having a long way to go when it comes to appropriately responding to those mental health concerns. I think it is certainly doable to encourage your friends to speak up about their concerns, but then it can be really hard to know how to respond to that and what is the right thing to say. I think as well when we are addressing people’s mental health concerns and mental health at large, we are always thinking about what we might call the symptoms. If someone is experiencing depression, we are thinking about how we can bring them into a more stable and happier state of mind and address their negative feelings, but I think, as a whole, and this is maybe more opinion and value based, we are not doing enough to address what makes people feel that way in the first place. I think it is common knowledge at this point that rates of mental health diagnoses have skyrocketed in the last few decades. It has reached the point that some mental health professionals and politicians are effectively saying we are living in a mental health epidemic, particularly affecting marginalised communities like the LGBTIA+ community as a whole and Indigenous communities. I think we are just not doing enough to ask the questions about what is causing that and how we could make society and the world at large a more equitable and less stressful place to live.
I feel like when someone has a mental health concern, a lot of the time the ownness is put on them to fix it or that they are in some way responsible for their own mental health, which is true to an extent, but I think you cannot look at these skyrocketing figures and think they are just individual problems. I think the simplest way of seeing systemic issues explained is if one person has a problem, it’s their problem, but if thousands of people have a problem, then it is a societal problem. It is a systemic problem. And I think the fact we are seeing just millions of people around the world diagnosed with mental health conditions… I just think there is heaps of work that needs to be done in terms of addressing those broader causes.
So, would you say society has a fixation with treating symptoms of mental health rather than preventing the potential causes or contributing factors of it?
Yeah, I think it is really important to work to treat the symptoms of mental health and work to support others through their lived experience of mental health issues, but I think I would really, and I again this is really an opinion and value-based statement, I would love to see more work and more funding put into that early prevention and intervention kind of strategy. I would really like a lot more awareness about social issues that might be impacting on people’s mental health as well as inequalities we face in modern society. We live in what many call the “information age” where we are just saturated with content and information all the time. I think with those negative influences and the state of the world effectively beaming into our brain 24/7, we are so enlightened with the amount of information we currently have about the state of our world. I think it would be really hard not to be affected by that and I personally think that would be a massive contributing factor to the rates of mental health increases we are seeing around the world.
Let’s talk about men’s mental health. This is the Mental Health Edition and I have chosen to sit here and talk to yourself, a straight white man on issues surrounding this edition’s theme. There is a lot of stigma surrounding the idea of a man, like yourself, not being able to express themselves or talk out. What are your thoughts and opinions on that?
I recognise the tremendous power imbalance even through just working with clients on my placement, in the Department of Child Protection. There is just this tremendous sensitivity about not wanting to come in feeling as though my perspective or opinion holds any more weight than other people’s. I do think that is genuinely a misconception a lot of straight white men have. We are so overrepresented in the media. And I think a lot of men have this tremendous expectation that the world should just revolve around them, but in saying that, there is also this expectation that, through being a male, we should have those classically masculine features of being tough, physically and mentally, and being, in terms of a family dynamic, that sort of provider figure that looks out for people. I think a lot of that creates a culture where men do, maybe, find it difficult to articulate or speak about mental health problems and ultimately feel a lot less comfortable seeking professional support because of that stigma around mental health. I think that it’s kind of this weak idea that it is somehow not applicable to us. I think that it is all still a part of the modern male identity, even today, which is really unfortunate. And I think a lot of these conversations really help to break a lot of that stigma and help to hopefully raise a bit of awareness around the fact that, as the slogan goes, it’s not weak to speak, and I hope as the generations progress, it is something we become better at as opposed to worse at.
And being a regular gym goer, do you think being physically healthy is as important to you as mental health? Does it come hand in hand for you?
I do think there is a direct correlation between lifestyle and health and mental health. That is probably something that took me a long time to learn/ I remember the first time I saw a psychologist in 2015 or 2016, one of the first questions she asked me was, ‘what is your diet like’, and I remember thinking, ‘what the fuck… like how is that relevant at all?’ It genuinely triggered me and I think there is real merit to people who say that kind of thinking is fatphobic or damaging, but I can’t deny, since making adjustments to my diet, I have felt mentally better. It is certainly not a solution, but just a strategy. It’s a tool that can be used.
“I think mental health is rarely a linear journey…”
What is heavier: lifting a weight or lifting a phone?
Definitely, lifting a phone to call someone. It does really take a lot of mental and internal strength to admit that things are not going well. To identify and label those feelings can be heaps challenging, especially when your feelings and emotions and mental health in general is what you might consider a real mess, something really hard to put your finger on. It can be heaps hard trying to open up to people. And even navigating the mental health sector, medically, is tremendously difficult. You have to go to a GP and get a mental health care plan and you get a referral to a psychological service and you have to go on a waiting list. A lot of people are deterred just by that process, and I think it can be really scary… but it is also worthwhile, lifesaving, life changing, empowering, educational and just a great introspective experience to be able to dissect those emotions and start working towards recovery.
When we finish this conversation, tonight what would be your best remedy for chilling out, self-actualising and finding your identity?
There is no perfect answer, because what works for one person may not for someone else. I think mental health is rarely a linear journey. I think being aware of what you can and cannot change is really important. I almost want to quote Harry Potter, but I can’t think of the exact quote. It is something like, ‘if you worry about an event you have to suffer through it twice.’ I think there is a lot of wisdom in recognising the destructive nature our thoughts can have, and, I think, working in taking a step back and observing those thoughts as opposed to letting them run your entire life is really key and easier said than done. It’s important to take time for selfcare, whether that means taking a day off work, doing some meditation, going for a walk, time with others, socialising, picking up a new hobby. I think a lot of people’s personal care strategies are really different, but I think all of those have real genuine merit and benefit.
I think the light at the end of the tunnel is learning to effectively manage your [mental ill health] and accepting living with it. For example, if you are going through depression, I think genuinely opening up about that and accepting and recognising that as a current lived experience you are going through and identifying strategies to help, that is the light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing that no matter how dark things get, you have tools to use and support people you can rely on to help you get through those tough times. It will be different for everyone.
“I think there is a lot of wisdom in recognising the destructive nature our thoughts can have…”
And now that you are in that role of the tool – the support person – does that change anything in your journey?
I think trying to empower other people can be really empowering for yourself. Feeling as though you get to be a part of other people’s journey and progress is really inspiring. I remember my first or second year of uni, one of the tutors said that being involved in one of the most intimate and vulnerable parts of a person’s life is a true privilege. It is so rare for people to learn so much about a person’s life or journey, so to be involved in that, even if it is in the tiniest way, it’s like a real genuine privilege. I will always have that in my head, that whether being involved with a social worker is beneficial for a person, being involved in someone’s life is a genuine gift and blessing. It really enriches the quality of my life. and I would hope it enriches the quality of others.
Well, that’s about it. However, I just want to end by saying one thing; we are two guys here, so I think it is important to say, I love you mate and if you need to speak about anything ever, let me know.
I really appreciate that, man. I love you too and straight back at you.