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August 14, 2017 | by  | in Opinion |
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Trying to Address Your Own Mental Health in NZ

You’ve probably heard someone derisively compare mental health to “diseases that you can’t help having” like diabetes, or cancer. Some people say that they’re one and the same, other people love to say that there’s no comparison to be made; one is your fault, the others aren’t. And that’s probably because only a select few will ever experience the root cause of a terminal illness (like a malfunctioning organ, or a tumour) so all the rest of us can do is observe. But everybody will experience stress, and anxiety, and sadness. So how do we discern the difference between having emotions and having a mental disorder?

Obviously if you’ve ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder you’ll know exactly what the difference is, and that experiencing life’s regular emotional spectrum feels completely separate to experiencing something misfiring in your brain. But since “feelings” are universal, it’s hard for people who are capable of dusting themselves off and “making a conscious effort to be more positive” (Jesus, if I had a dollar) to understand that there are people who can’t; and not just because they don’t want to, or because they aren’t trying hard enough. There’s a difference between being upset and being clinically depressed, and being worried and having an anxiety disorder, etc., and I think most of us can understand, or at least recognise that. So that’s not what this piece is about. Because something as innately human as judging from a place of prejudice rather than a place of empathy or willingness will, for most of us, take a long time to undo.

Truthfully, you won’t understand the grind that is trying to address your own mental health in New Zealand unless you’ve tried to do it. When you’ve been dealing with something on your own for a while and finally accepted that you’ll keep hitting the same wall without some proper guidance, you assume that when you ask for help, it’ll be available. But that isn’t always the case. You might get assessed once if you really push for it, then have to explain yourself to a counsellor who doesn’t have the time to indulge you, then get sent home with a prescription for a low dosage SSRI and instructions to “let that kick in and ride it out.” It seems we’re often stumped as to how somebody could slip through the national network of counsellors and crisis teams, all the “fail safes” put in place by the DHBs to prevent us from feeling like we’re out of options. But honestly, unless you’re paying big bucks (think almost triple the GP price, minimum) for proper intensive psychiatric treatment, you’ll only ever be offered airy-fairy advice and catch-all medication; at least at first.

It was such a process to find a doctor who took me seriously, and even knew how to treat me at all. More often than not I’d leave a session feeling like I talked, and talked, and talked, but nothing was resolved; and I had nothing left to say about it, so felt it must be unresolvable. That was never the case, and I just had to keep talking at people until I found someone who said it back to me, in the right way. But that was so time consuming and, sometimes, straight up embarrassing. I mean, you can only admit your most shameful and selfish thoughts to a stranger so many times without progress before you start to think that maybe you are just that; shameful and selfish. It’s easy to tell yourself, like I did, that maybe you’re being a massive baby, and you need to kick your ass into gear on your own. Maybe you should try harder to snap out of it. When you try and (inevitably) fail to function like a healthy person on resolve alone, you ask for help like you’re supposed to. But when that’s just as fruitless as it was the last time, the cycle continues.

When you’ve got to get help, you’ve got to get help. And collectively we have to push for real, practical help for everyone. I understand that medicine and psychiatry are professions, and you have to pay professionals for their expertise, but there has got to be a better system in place for the people who have neither the time nor the funds to properly invest in their mental health. A system in which trying to handle yourself in a practical, preventative way is embraced, rather than overlooked; you shouldn’t have to make a big, discernibly “crazy” scene in order to be taken seriously and treated in good time, or even treated at all. That’s how people (especially young people) get the wrong idea about “reaching out” for help. And with New Zealand currently holding the title for highest teen suicide rate in the developed world, we really can’t afford for our mental health system to be anything other than efficient, and easy for vulnerable individuals to navigate.

It’s reasonable to expect a wait in the public system, and while it would be ideal, nobody goes into their first consultation expecting to leave with a perfectly tailored treatment plan (this is in no way a dig at public hospital staff — they’re overworked and underpaid, and they do usually try in good faith to give you as much as they can in what little time they have to spare). But to spend years bouncing from referral to referral, investing time, energy, and money into a service that offers no real structure or end goal, and completely alienating your friends and family in the process, isn’t fair to expect of anyone. I can attest to the relief of being given an actual diagnosis by a psychiatrist who knew exactly what was clinically wrong with me almost immediately, and didn’t make me feel like I was having the biggest whinge of all time while we spoke. It took four years of “seeking help” to get that, because I was finally able to shell out the ridiculous fee for a couple of private appointments.

It’s so frustrating to feel like you have a lot to offer, but you can’t because you’re channelling all of your energy into something that’s proving to be completely futile and disappointing. And it shouldn’t be so hard to get something as simple as a name for what you’ve been experiencing, and some diagnosis-specific tips on how best to move forward. It only took two appointments with the right person (two, after years of attempting therapy and medication) to get myself back on track. There has got to be more resources, more “high-end” mental treatment readily available to those who rely on the public system, and less hurdles set up in front of people who are just trying to help themselves.

Sometimes you want to sort yourself out, and it seems like there’s no practical way to do that without completely burdening everyone around you. But there is. It might take time, time you probably feel like you don’t have to “waste” on something as “pointless and self-indulgent as your own mental health” (at least I know I did at 4.32am on April 5, apparently) but it is important, and it is worth it. The more time you spend working on a realistic treatment plan now, the sooner you’ll be back to living and contributing to the extent that you know healthy-you is capable of. And that’s what matters.  

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