It’s an early Winter’s evening. As the crisp night air gets colder on my face, there is not a soul to be seen, the streets are all but deserted as the darkness of the night begins to take hold.
But tonight, at a local public hospital, the emergency room is packed to the rafters with people. Wall-to-wall, patients are lining the cramped corridors, and sprawled across the dirty linoleum floors, as hospital staff hurriedly walk over them in a bid to get to the next patient.
Its 10:42pm. Through the automatic glass doors, a desperate, hysterical mother presents her adult son to the triage nurse on duty.
The young man in his early 20’s, head bowed down staring at the floor, lost in his own black darkness, stands beside his mother, when in desperation she tells the nurse:
“My son just told me he wants to kill himself…”
The mother’s pain is etched in her face. Her primal instincts for the survival of her child, overwhelm me.
The nurse hardly bats an eyelid, as she takes their Medicare card and tells them to take a seat.
There is no urgency.
She is not telling anyone, she is not paging for assistance, she is not yelling for help.
I’m in shock. What did I just hear? As I bear witness to the dismissal of the mother’s desperate plea for help, my heart breaks, and the tears well in my eyes.
Doesn’t anybody care? He wants to kill himself!
Nearly half of all Australians will experience some form of mental illness during their life. The teenage and early adulthood years, sees the first onset of symptoms present themselves, with those aged 18-24 having the highest prevalence to mental disorders than any other age group, according to the 2014 Mission Australia Youth Survey.
The three most common mental disorders identified were; depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
With 9 billion dollars spent on mental health in 2015-16 and 4 million people estimated to have had a mental disorder in 2015, public hospitals are under strain and unable to cope.
Patients who presented themselves to the ER and triaged as ‘emergency’, were still left waiting to be seen much longer than the recommended 10-minute guidelines, set up for mental illness episodes, as reported in the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report in 2018.
According to The Black Dog Institute, over 65,000 people a year attempt suicide, with most of those being women.
“When I was 17 I tried to take my own life. I took 40 tablets from my own medication…I don’t remember how I got to hospital…I was in-and-out of consciousness, I felt my body shutting down, I couldn’t move my body. I remember saying to myself ‘this is it’, and I quickly accepted that this was my fate – to die,” says Maria Lagadinos.
Maria is a 33- year old university student, and suffers from depression, anxiety and on-going stress, and had a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis in 2012-13.
She was taken to Fairfield hospital where she was treated for the physical symptoms of her overdose, but not her psychological symptoms. In hospital, she was bought back from the brink of death, but once she was stable and her chest x-rays were clear, Maria says she was then sent home, with no mention of, or treatment plan, for her mental health issues.
Sometimes, Maria wishes she didn’t live. She is highly emotional and stops to catch her breath. As the words slowly spill from her mouth, the pain and suffering is as raw today as it was back then.
“Living with depression, anxiety, the bullying and the people around you not supporting you…the system lets you down a lot, it abuses you and every day you wake up it’s just a fight – right now I’m fighting to keep myself alive.”
“My wish was to wake up and not have that depression and that weight on me every day, but other times I’m glad that I didn’t (die), because I wouldn’t have my dream of coming to uni to become a social worker and to help other people,” she says.
In a subsequent episode, Maria’s cry for help was misconstrued as another suicide attempt, where police and ambulance were called, and she was forced to stay in the mental health ward at Bankstown hospital against her will, where she says she was abused and left bruised by hospital staff and security guards.
“Security kept throwing me to the ground-they were stopping me from getting to my mum, which made me more distressed. They injected me with something, and all I kept thinking was I was going to get raped or something (from being sedated), but all I wanted was to tell my mum about some seizures I was having,” she says, her voice trembling as she recalls the terrifying incident.
Naomi Krl, 22, and a university student, has struggled with depression and anxiety since she was 15. She believes the hospital system is ill-equipped for mental health emergencies- especially with teenagers. On her first hospital visit she waited 2-3 hours to be seen by a doctor, and due to a bed shortage in the adolescent ward, was placed in the adult’s mental health ward. A disturbing environment for a young teenage girl.
“I had to have my room door open, and they even made me have the bathroom door open when I went to the bathroom or had a shower, to make sure I wasn’t doing anything to myself – fair considering they’re trying to keep me alive, but still wasn’t a nice thing,” she says.
It took a few days for Naomi to finally access a psychologist, who visited her only four times throughout her two-week stay. She desperately wanted to get out of the demeaning ward, so she lied to her carers that she felt much better – a ploy that not only saw her discharged from hospital, but it triggered a re-lapse and subsequent trip back to the hospital ER, due to inadequate treatment.
On her second admission, she was placed in the adolescent ward – a friendlier environment with bright colours on the walls. A place which caters specifically to the mental health requirements of young adults, and a place where she received better care.
Naomi took part in group therapy sessions, stress relief activities, as well as one-on-one therapy. But questions why the adult ward must be so bland and sterile?
In a Orygen Report labelled – ‘Under the Radar’, there is research which suggests that university students are more likely to experience psychological distress, than their peers who are not studying. The report also suggests that university students are less likely to ask for help within that academic setting – with fear that the stigma attached to mental illness, will be a mark against them, and that academics won’t understand how to respond to them.
Some students choose to leave their studies entirely rather than seeking help, causing a detrimental effect on their mental health and employment outcomes.
Peter Gray is 26 and a combined Arts/Laws student. He has been diagnosed with treatment resistant depression, as well as severe anxiety. Peter has been on four different anti-depressants as well as mood stabilisers, and is still not in full remission from a depressive episode that occurred when he was 23.
“I have experienced anxiety since I was in primary school, and despite having a family history of depression and anxiety, nothing prepared me for the journey I have been on over the last three years,” he says.
Peter’s father passed away during the first week of his university studies, which inevitably led to him deferring his studies for six months. Peter had also taken on the role of campaign manager for a political candidate in the NSW state election in 2015, a role which took its toll on Peter – both physically and emotionally, culminating in constant verbal and psychological abuse from the candidate.
“During this time, I sacrificed time with family, left my employment, and struggled with the university workload, leading to poor grades in order to try and keep up with the tasks, demands and expectations,” he says sadly.
Peter was battling depression for six months until he realised that he needed to see his doctor. His ordeal had led to him not working or studying for about 18 months, with visits to psychologists and the beginning of trial and error with his prescribed medications.
“I made a conscious decision to let go many of my commitments I had with uni and friends (because) I needed to focus on my health…(it) has had a significant emotional and financial effect on my life and my family,” he says.
Kathleen McCarthy is 46, a university student, married and a mother to three children aged 7, 9 and 11, and works three days a week – a supermum by most people’s standards. She also suffers from moderate anxiety, mild bi-polar, depression and sensory processing symptoms.
“I have been struggling. I have cut back on my load at uni, so that I can have some down time. But I am in a bit of a ‘down cycle’, I need to keep busy – but not too busy, it’s a fine line,” she says.
A sexual assault five years ago has been a big part of her mental health struggles. This triggered past emotional and mental health experiences earlier in her life, which led to Kathleen wanting a fresh start. So, she decided to return to university study.
“I found getting the kind of help that I needed and wanted very difficult. All the medical staff were always very sympathetic and supportive, but I wanted something different. I didn’t want to be back to the ‘way I was before’ or to ‘put it behind me’,” she says.
Her two medications place a burden on the family’s finances, and there have been times when she has not been able to afford it. She didn’t take the mood stabiliser for a while because of the costs – but paid a heavy price with her health, when she got very sick not long afterwards.
Sadly, Kathleen has in her darkest moments thought that her family would be better off without her. Not because she wanted to kill herself, but because she sees herself as a burden to them.
Dr Aiman Muhammad, a psychiatrist at Auburn Doctors in Sydney, says that environmental and cultural stresses, together with the lack of brain maturity during early adulthood, sees the volume of mental health episodes increase for this age group, more than any other group.
“Awareness and training for hospital staff is crucial as to be able to identify the risks of mental disorder in young adults,” he says.
President of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) Dr Kym Jenkins, says that major funding for mental health care is required across our hospitals.
“We have significant shortages of psychiatrists, not enough acute inpatient beds for people experiencing mental illness, and poor access to community care and support programs”, he says.
Maria Lagadinos wants people with mental health issues to be acknowledged and accepted in our society. By telling her story, she wants sufferers to know that they can overcome their issues and break the mental health stigma.
“Mental illness is like cancer. You can’t see them, but one is accepted and the other isn’t,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from in life, you can overcome it, you can talk about it…you can accomplish stuff in your life.”
Naomi Krl agrees, and says that depression is like cancer of the mind, and that we should be treating mental health the same way we treat physical illness.
As for the young man in the emergency room?
I sincerely hope he wasn’t kept waiting for hours to be seen by the psychiatric unit, and that he received the treatment that both he and his mother needed – unfortunately its something I will never really know.
There is always hope after short or long-term mental illness. Good mental health outcomes, are what we should all be striving for.
If you or someone you know needs help:
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
- Headspace 1800 650 890
- Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467