Staying mentally healthy
My sister has anxiety and depression.
When they're written like that, these two illnesses sound so concise and manageable. But for Anita, the way she feels can hardly be summed up in two words.
"I don't really know how to explain it. I'd just turned 17 when I started to feel like nothing was really worth doing," she says.
"I didn't see the point in hanging out with my friends or family. I didn't want to go to school. I just remember thinking all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and never get out again. Things got pretty desperate."
Still, it took my mum, my brother and I three years to convince Anita to see a doctor. It wasn't because she didn't realise she needed help. She knew she did.
In good company
In 2007 the Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (new window) found that only one in four young people with mental health problems sought professional medical help.
My sister was simply part of the 75 per cent who don't because of monetary problems, guilt, fear, denial or a multitude of other reasons.
When the ABS studied the results of the 2007 survey, they found that the 18-24 age group had the greatest number of people with a mental illness in Australia.
All up, 26 per cent of young people will experience a mental illness. For most, it'll be anxiety or depression or a combinational both.
Clinical child and adolescent psychologist Dr Simon Crisp says the changes and difficulties we face in adolescence and young adulthood can be particularly hard.
"About 10 per cent of the population is born with a sensitive temperament, which makes them more anxious and less capable of handling stress," he says.
"Then there are those who experience some sort of grief, a death in the family or their parents' separation. It doesn't take some big catastrophic event. Just one of these things, if not dealt with properly, can lead to depression and anxiety."
For my sister, getting stuck in an elevator on a family holiday was enough to trigger a fear of confined spaces that quickly blossomed into frequent anxiety attacks.
Not long after that she started withdrawing from family activities and her once-jam-packed social life. She stopped going to her part-time job and never wanted to go to school.
What we didn't know at the time, but what Dr Crisp points out, is that all these things were red flags indicating that Anita had depression.
"If you go from being particularly sociable to preferring your own company, and if this behaviour continues for more than two weeks, then you should seek professional help," he says.
"Don't wait, hoping it will go away. The sooner you see a GP or psychologist the better, even if it turns out to be nothing."
Speak up and don't be ashamed
One of the hardest things my sister had to learn was not to be ashamed about her mental illness.
"I felt like I was a burden to my family. That they deserved a better normal daughter," Anita says.
Beyond Blue deputy CEO Dr Nicole Highet says feelings of worthlessness or shame are common among young people suffering from depression on anxiety, but she insists there is no reason to feel like that.
"Having a mental illness is no different from having a physical health problem. It's not your fault. It's never your fault. You wouldn't be ashamed about having a stomachache, would you? So never be ashamed about having depression or anxiety," Dr Highet says.
In 2011, Youth Beyond Blue launched a series of online video blogs (new window) to help young people feel better about seeking professional medical help.
Mental health and wellbeing isn't always about treatment. It's also about prevention.
With that in mind, University of Canberra Professor of Youth Psychology Debra Rickwood says there are plenty of things young people can do to stay mentally healthy.
"Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep and above all stay connected. A sense of attachment, of wellbeing and of purpose, as well as some positive ways to avoid stress, are incredibly important," she says.
But sometimes self-help isn't enough. In that case, Professor Rickwood says young people should never turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.
"They only exacerbate the depressive and anxious feelings. Instead, seek help and remember that that's never a sign of failure. Sometimes we need a little bit of help to get out that black tunnel."
In Anita's case, talking to a psychologist was the best thing ever. With help, she's begun taking better care of herself and is hanging out with her friends more often. But she says she's far from fixed.
"I still feel anxious and depressed. I might always have those feelings, but now I know what to look for and what to do if my emotions start to get the better of me, and that's made a world of difference."
Help is on its way
Whether you have depression or anxiety, or know someone who does, it's important to remember that you're not alone. The first step is to always speak to family and friends and tell them how you feel, but if you can't do that, that's okay too.
There are plenty of online resources where you can get all the information you need without the complicated medical jargon.
The Youthbeyondblue (new window) website is a great place to start. They've published a series of fact sheets (new window), including A Guide to What Works for Depression in Young People, to help young people better understand depression and the treatment available for it.
Headspace (new window) is part of the National Youth Mental Health Foundation. It provides mental health and wellbeing support, information and services in a confidential and less formal setting.
You don't have to have a diagnosed mental illness to use either of these services, or to get in touch with them. They're both there to help you get through anything you might be dealing with at school, work or home.
So get online, get informed about mental illnesses and never be embarrassed to admit you need professional help. It takes a lot of courage to speak to someone about your feelings and you should be proud that you did.
Articles Written by Elisa
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