Thursday, 2 October 2014

How healthy are you?

They say there's a chance I could die of breast cancer,
Or a melanoma
I could die from heart disease
Or even from a brain haemorrhage
Maybe in a car accident
But the fact is, the biggest cause of death for women in my age group is suicide.

I saw this commercial last night and I was shocked. I knew that suicide was a major cause of death for young men, I didn't realise how significant it was for young women too.

I have not been doing terribly well lately. I have been sad. There is a blood test with my name on it indicating my thyroid is a bit whack, so that is one of the reasons, damn hormones. It is a bit of a chicken-egg scenario I have going on- stress affects my thyroid which then makes me stressed. I am catastrophising every little problem. 
When I heard: 
"They say there's a chance I could die of breast cancer" my ears pricked up- I worry about this daily, I lost my Nana to breast cancer and I have had a couple of scares
"Or a melanoma"- I have a small mark on my leg I have shown to three separate doctors so far. 
"I could die from heart disease"- well, it's in my family, all this fretting lately and lack of sleep is probably having untold effects on my body. 
"Or even from a brain haemorrhage"- I was on the contraceptive pill that the magazines kept linking to blood clots, and my grandfather had a stroke. 
"Maybe in a car accident"- well, my car has a one star safety rating so if I crash...
"But the fact is, the biggest cause of death for women in my age group is suicide." - I have never worried about suicide. I am fortunate that I have never been suicidal. Sure, I've felt low; once or twice I've thought how much easier it would be if I unhooked my fingers from the wheel of the car as I rounded the bend on the overpass- but it was just a fleeting thought. Suicide is never the easy way out. Not for anyone. Not ever. But if you are suffering with mental illness I can see how it might appear to be the solution.
It's fair to say I have a mild anxiety disorder. That's the new term for it. Fifty years ago people would have just said "Oh that Nicole, she's a worrier." I actually prefer this term. I am a worrier, I worry about things and I don't think that is such a bad thing because sometimes that worry, or more specifically the time spent in thought, helps me find solutions or opportunities to move forward. Often though the worry is about things that *might* happen or things I cannot change and this is when it is unhealthy.

Every year one in five Australians will experience a mental illness and almost half of Australians (45%) will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. These are just the reported statistics, in reality mental illness (allowing for a range of severity) is far more common and significantly under-reported. The World Health Organisation defines mental health as "a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community."

I don't consider that I have a mental illness because I have years of professional experience working with people who suffer from serious mental illness. By saying my mild anxiety about health, and slight obsessiveness about locked doors and turned-off stoves is mental illness, I feel that I am somehow trivialising the pain and suffering of others. But can I say confidently that I realise my own potential, cope with stress and work productively and fruitfully? Not really. I work well, but am often tired because I don't sleep well. I spend too much free time googling stories that scare me, and feel I need to multi-task all the time. I am sometimes a little late for work because I get to the end of the street and have to turn the car around to check that the stove is turned off and the doors are properly locked. 65% of people with mental illness do not access treatment. This is through a combination of lack of awareness, problems with detection and accurate diagnosis, and fear of the stigma attached to mental illness. I guess I am in this group.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his short story "The Imp of the Perverse", of the desire within us, the tendency we have, to do things that are not in our best interests. He writes of that little part of us, the 'imp of the perverse', that when standing on a precipice gives us that glimpse of plunging into the abyss, "the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height." We all have that imp, but it is our mental health that keeps us in check. It is our mental health that allows us a brief moment of indulgent, perverse thought and then tells us to step back from the edge. 

Please know that in talking about the imp my intention is not to trivialise. Not at all. Depression is a complex and ill-understood condition arising from a tapestry of factors. I hear so many stories from people who get the urge to end it, but don't. These people are still well enough to step back from the edge and get help. Those who plan their death, who purchase the items they need and take time to write notes notes for their loved ones- the pain of life must be overwhelming and I can't begin to comprehend it. We (science/medicine/society/faith/magic/someone/whoever) need to find a way of preventing people from reaching this level of suffering in the first place.

Every day at least six Australians die from suicide and a further thirty will attempt to take their own life. The numbers are probably much higher than this but again are under-reported. Every single death is tragic, but a seemingly senseless death from suicide has so much more impact on everyone around that person. My great grandfather committed suicide when my pop was six years old; he wrapped his lips around a shotgun and pulled the trigger. The family covered this up, they moved to a new area, said he had died from a gun accident. That six year old boy grew up to be an alcoholic, he struggled with depression his whole life because it wasn't something people spoke about or treated. Eighty years later he too tried to take his own life, first by electrocution, which failed, followed by sleeping pills. My mum found him, he knew she would, he left her a note telling her not to touch his body (thinking he might still have electric current running through him). It occurred to me as I wrote this that I don't ask her often enough how she is. She doesn't sleep well either.

There is so much time, effort and money invested in education about physical health but relatively little focus on what we can do for our mental health. Yet just like cancer and heart disease, early detection and treatment assists in reducing the burden of illness and improves outcomes. Ask yourself, if you were throwing up repeatedly for two to three weeks would you go to the doctor? Of course you would. What about if you were feeling hopeless, lacking pleasure in things you usually enjoy and sleeping a lot more or less than usual, would you go to the doctor? If you answered no,  then perhaps you should check out this Anxiety and depression checklist from Beyond Blue. 

Or familiarise yourself with this card from SPOTa

So what am I doing? I have spoken to my GP and have identified that one of the things that increases my anxiety is a lack of me-time. I am making more of an effort to take a little time out from work, study, chores, blogging and social media to go for a walk with my camera or have a bit of quiet time. It is helping. I am also more mindful of the things that increase my anxiety (like Dr Google) and am avoiding them.

Mental Health Week runs from 5th to 11th of October and World Mental Health Day is on 10th October. The aim is to educate and engage people about mental health and break down some of the stigmas that prevent people from seeking help. If you are in Australia there are a number of events being held around the country which you can find out about on the Mental Health Begins with Me webpage. There is also a link to Make a promise to yourself - an opportunity to take the first step in maintaining or winning back your mental health (you can remain anonymous if you like) and contribute to the gallery of people making positive steps towards mental health awareness.

Please, if ever you are feeling suicidal or just really blue or confused call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you need more information about suicide prevention, are worried about someone, or dealing with the loss of a loved one to suicide get in touch with Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467. Or talk to your doctor or psychologist.

More Information:
The Black Dog Institute- Facts and figures about mental health and mood disorders
Statistics and Information for this post were sourced from Mindframe 
Eden Riley writes about her brother's suicide and her own mental health with amazing rawness and honesty on her blog Edenland. I am including this here because I believe that talking openly about about mental health and suicide is going to save lives.

Please know that everything I have talked about here is just my opinion. I have a medical background but have no specialisation in psychology. My intention in writing this is to start conversation around mental illness and to draw attention to World Mental Health day. The more we talk openly about all aspects of health, the more educated we become; the more we can do to help.

N x 


  1. This is such a difficult post to respond meaningfully to so I'll just say that you're incredibly brave for voicing the personal things that you have (about yourself and your family) and you're a real inspiration - I hope - for others who may have mental health niggles. I too don't mean to trivialise by calling them 'niggles', my point was merely to illustrate that it's important to check out the niggles before they turn into the full grown black dog, or worse.
    Sending you as much internet love as you'd like and thank you for sharing. I think the problem is as huge here in the UK and still with such terrifying stigma attached to it.
    M x

    1. Thank you x
      I noticed when I was researching this post that Schizophrenia is the focus for this year's World Mental Health Day in the UK. I think it is great that each year they focus on a specific condition and aim to educate more about it.


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