10 October 2019, Melbourne – The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is ‘Do you see what I see?’, with the aim to:
- Challenge negative perceptions of mental health.
- Encourage people to shine a positive light on mental health.
- Make a way for people to seek the support they need.
At batyr, we want to amplify the voices of young people in order to smash mental health stigma and increase help-seeking rates in Australia. It has been proven that sharing lived experience stories is the most effective way to change negative perceptions of mental health.
Simeon shares his mental health journey and talks about what World Mental Health Day means to him.
My name is Simeon, I’m a counsellor, actor, writer and, over the last few years, something of a mental health warrior.
I was never someone who was particularly full of fear but when I was 14, things took a turn. My year level dealt with a tragic event when a student of ours, and a good friend of mine, passed away suddenly due to an allergic reaction at a school camp that I was attending. I didn’t realise it at the time but this traumatic event awoke something in me. It was as if a bomb that had been planted in me long ago had suddenly gone off inside my head. The grief was deep and I felt hollow and really frightened. I became obsessed with the idea that life is fragile. I was scared that I or anyone around me could face harm at any time, as if it was something I could actually control. It began to accelerate what were originally simple habits of mine, like checking the locks on the doors and windows of my house once a night before bed, into checking them again and again repeatedly, unable to convince myself further checks were unnecessary, even leaving bed to go back again and make double, triple, quadruple sure the locks were still firmly latched. There were nights I could only sleep (and the nights where I could sleep were the better ones) because this routine of getting up to check the locks had been done so much that I would finally collapse on my bed exhausted and frustrated. This was but one of the many rituals I would take part in while in the peak of my condition – it felt like a beast had been released.
The troubling obsessions were so out of left field and specific, it’s like there was a ghost hanging over my shoulder at all times recording my anxious thoughts to play back at me: you haven’t washed thoroughly enough and might spread disease, are you sure you turned off the oven? This space is affected by you and you’re going to make yourself and your family sick. It was like a 24/7 broadcast of terror streamed directly into my own mind.
My family became concerned when they would find me in the bathroom for a long time, furiously cleaning the sink, the toilet, the floor, the walls over and over and then repeating the process for other rooms in the house. This broadcast would follow me at school, when I was out with mates, it would keep me stuck at home, wanting to escape at the same time. It took me completely out of my life for 2 long years, and it felt like I was never going to break free.
Eventually, through traversing the sea of multiple therapists necessary, I found the most lovely psychologist in the world. I was officially diagnosed at this point with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression. After a period of time on medication, hard work in cognitive behavioural therapy and the support of family and friends, I was eventually able to break through my more time-consuming rituals. I began to climb out of despair and depression. I was able to enjoy all my old hobbies more and get through my school days easier and feel more generally full of joy. Life has felt like a continual expansion and growth experience since then that I’ve been lucky and feel honoured to be a part of, warts and all.
Did stigma prevent you from reaching out for support?
Initially I was apprehensive to share what I was going through and what I thought it might be, even with those closest to me, because I figured it could leave me open to discrimination or worse, people trying to provoke the OCD symptoms in me for laughs or out of morbid curiosity. I was also scared that sharing information about my affliction would make me be seen as defective or broken in the eyes of others. With OCD, the behaviors and rituals that manifest are often noticeable (not for lack of trying to cover them up) and can be occasionally seen as over-the-top or become the subject of ridicule. I think this is partially due to a limited understanding of the disorder I found in my school and everyday environments at the time, but also the media’s frequently exaggerated and comical take on the illness. However, I ultimately found that my concerns about stigma and the feelings of dread around sharing my story were much, much worse than anything that actually happened as a result of opening up.
What do you wish someone knew about what you were going through?
At the time, I wished people could understand that I saw the irrationality behind my fears that caused me to practice my rituals.. I think a common misconception with OCD is that someone can be reasoned with or logic can be used to show people the folly of their way of thinking, but, from my experience it is largely an emotional disorder, not an intellectual one. The drive to do a ritual or some behaviour to calm my fear and cancel out the terror was so strong that it’s virtually impossible to beat – it’s like being continually yanked back by strings just like a puppet. I understood that the things I felt may happen through not doing rituals were usually exaggerations or even impossible, but it was too hard to not want to at least try and stop them from happening.
I also wished people would realise that it is such a guilt-based disorder. For me it often felt like it came from a selfless place. There was such a need to take care of not only myself but mainly those around me for the greater good of everybody and prevention of tragedy, that the involuntary obsessions that grew from that came from a place of true empathy and care and a desire to protect.
Lastly, even though some of my rituals may be common to others or part of the textbook OCD experience for some observers, what I was driven to do and to think was overall unique based on my own circumstances and life experiences, and the best therapeutic or personal help I received always reflected this. So I wish people understood how isolating and lonely and personal this journey can be, to be in one’s own imprisoned world for a long period of time, and I think this would lead to a better understanding of mental ill health overall. It would also reiterate the importance of listening with an open mind to those struggling, respecting their individual journey and getting to know their story around the illness, and not just look at the illness itself.
Tell us about a moment or conversation you had that ‘shone a light’ on the challenges you were facing and encouraged you to reach out. What was that moment like?
I still remember the first time I opened up about my OCD to a school friend. He was trying to do something simple like fix a knot in my hair for me at the time and I refused to let his grasp anywhere near me, religiously swatting his hand away. There was guilt surging through me. I didn’t want him to think it was anything about him. I wanted so badly at that point to just explain to him my fear of contamination and how complicated my thoughts could really get and why I couldn’t allow such a simple gesture from him. Sick of trying to generate excuses or fantasy stories, at that exact moment I decided to be honest with him and, welling up with a lump in my throat, I explained to him that I was experiencing obsessive compulsive behaviours. To my great surprise, my friend told me he too had suffered at a young age from a small onset of OCD. The next time I saw him, he surprised me further by saying his family, having helped him through this difficult period, were happy to speak to my parents about how to help me through such a time. So something I felt an unnecessary level of shame around was among me in one of my closest friends. Not only was this a huge relief, but it lead to a new level of communication with my own family I hadn’t previously imagined and changed my view of stigma and story sharing in a massive way.
How do you challenge misconceptions about mental health and encourage positive conversations?
I think it’s important to focus on the positives that your mental health journey has provided to your life when having these conversations because there is a lot of inspiration in that for people to hear and see. I believe it’s important for people to be authentic and continue speaking up and sharing their truths in order to normalise mental health experiences and with this additional focus on the areas of growth and positivity, I truly believe we can shift attitudes around mental illnesses on a cultural level.
I throw myself out of my comfort zone all the time in other areas of my life now because my experience encouraged me to do that and showed me that I can and that I’m much stronger than any of these challenges that come my way. In my roles publicly speaking around mental health, as a counsellor and performer, my OCD experience has helped me tenfold and provided a vast amount of experience and material to work with and boosted my empathy levels and landed me in jobs I truly enjoy and value, and it’s demonstrably influential for others to see someone on the other side of their struggles doing this kind of work and continuing to be visible about their previous battles.
Even though the whole journey has been a real challenge, I’m so grateful ultimately for the person it’s making me and particularly for the support I’ve received along the way. Reflecting that gratitude and progress is a powerful way to challenge misconceptions around mental health.
What is your pledge for World Mental Health Day?
I am going to pledge to travel more over the next year and think about easily implementable ways we can share more with colleagues and people in the workplace, and the media, our ideas on maintaining mental wellbeing in the workplace and at schools across Australia.
If this story has brought up strong feelings for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.