They say no life is untouched by cancer, and it feels true. It seems even more true of mental illness. I struggle to think of anyone I know whose life is not affected by it, whether themselves, or someone close to them. More often than not, both.
There was a day this week I wasn’t sure I’d get through without bursting into tears. These days are not that uncommon for me, but usually I can take a sick day and hide from the world. Couldn’t do that: one of the contributing factors is stress from an ongoing situation at work. Not turning up would only have made things worse. At one point I was suddenly overwhelmed by emotion sitting at my desk. I couldn’t breathe; tears pricked at my eyes; my body shook with the effort of keeping it all in; my heart raced. I cast a panicked glance out my office door, but no one was looking. Relieved, I calmed myself down with techniques learned over years. Controlling my breath, going for a walk, talking myself down.
I say this not for sympathy but to acknowledge how extraordinarily bloody common it is to suffer mental distress. Just as no one is immune from physical illness, no one is immune from mental illness. Yet funding for treatment is shrinking, even though the incidence in the population is increasing.
I’m immensely grateful I never experienced mental illness in my teens. Like any teen, I felt emotions keenly and could plunge into deep sadness but it wasn’t depression. I feared making a fool of myself – dying of embarrassment seemed a real possibility – but I didn’t suffer from anxiety. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a teenager dealing with serious mental illness but I know it must be incredibly tough. Adolescence is hard enough. I seriously doubt if I would have survived.
My heart goes out to the parents too. The impotence must be crushing. That and the guilt, the false belief that you caused it, or could have done something to stop it. Not to mention the toll the child’s symptoms take on the rest of the family.
In Queensland there are few services that cater for teenagers with mental illnesses, fewer still for those with severe mental illness. The LNP Government closed the Barrett Centre, the only residential support service for teenagers in the state. Three of the residents committed suicide in the months after it closed. The money put aside for a new centre didn’t even go into alternative services. Now funding has been cut for the only service that treats eating disorders, a decision that will especially affect teenage girls.
We need to fight to get better services for young people or we will see more deaths. A good friend of mine has been doing just that. The campaign to save the Barrett Centre didn’t succeed, but it did help bring scrutiny to the decision in the form of a parliamentary inquiry. Now that campiagn is morphing into a broader campiagn for better services. If you care about these issues, please visit Severe Youth Mental Health to learn what’s happening to services and find out how you can support the lobby for better care for vulernable teens.