If you care, listen

It’s a warm, bright Sunday and I have nothing to be sad about, but I’m suicidal. Not in a passing way like most days, but deeply ready to end my life. I’m tired of the uselessness of my local hospital. The Acute Care Team is no longer trustworthy. I am desperate to stop feeling this way.

It’s a cool Tuesday night and I’m standing at the front of a lecture room, corralling some of my closest friends. We have a big event to plan – for the first time, we will be at every campus at once, raising awareness for Transgender Day of Visibility. Someone cracks a joke about being the only straight person in the room and I tell him to be quiet but I’m smiling.

I’m paranoid. I pull the cord from my hoodie and wrap and unwind and wrap and unwind and wrap and unwind it around my hand to ward off the stares of the other people on the train. Some teenagers laugh loudly and I grit my teeth and tell myself it’s not because of me they don’t know what I’m thinking my thoughts aren’t public. I decide to get off.

I’m smiling at strangers, encouraging them to ask questions and take a sausage. I’m confident and my anxiety leaves – there’s no room for it amongst the jokes and words of support. In this moment I am authentically myself and nobody questions that. My hair is bright blue and pink and I smell like a barbecue, but people still trust what I say and let me educate them – I’m in my element.

… but I’m back on the battlefield for acceptance and equality.

This is the dichotomy of mental illness. Within days of an episode, I will return to my study or shoulder my community’s weight to advocate for all of us. I might have a fresh scar, or excuse myself to splash cold water on my face and tell myself not to have a panic attack, but I’m back on the battlefield for acceptance and equality. I don’t have time for extended illness. In the current economic climate, this is true for so many people, especially young people with health problems – to afford our treatment, we work ourselves sick, and in between it all we use our passion and our experiences to try and change the world.

I am what is known in the medical world as ‘high functioning’ – I am not visibly disabled by my illness. I maintain my personal hygiene, study, and head up a social and advocacy group for LGBTQ and Intersex students and staff at my uni. I manage to keep myself socially acceptable and productive.

Unfortunately, what clinicians don’t see (and sometimes don’t want to see) is the fact that I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in years; I have frequent emotional flashbacks, which from the outside look like I’m just lost in my own thoughts; that it’s taken me two months to book an appointment with my psychiatrist because picking up the phone stresses me out so much.

I have been asked to comment on how to help guide better health outcomes for young people. The first step is to listen to us. Accessing mental health treatment is rarely enjoyable; if I am presenting to the emergency department, I am truly desperate for help, but all too often I (and my peers) leave in a worse state than we came in. There seems to be an attitude amongst clinicians that we are ‘attention seeking’ – doubly so if you are termed a ‘frequent flier’ which, due to the recurrent and episodic nature of our illnesses, mental health consumers so often are. However, if you listen to our stories, you will find we are unique and distressed individuals trying desperately to do the right thing.

Navigating the pathway to effective help in a mental health crisis is unimaginably difficult and tiring.

The second step is to smooth out and untangle referral pathways. It is an endless roundabout – you call Acute Care; they tell you to go to emergency; emergency discharge you with instructions to call Acute Care. Navigating the pathway to effective help in a mental health crisis is unimaginably difficult and tiring. We are already in distress and the system only serves to reinforce our self talk of being annoying, or taking up resources, or that things are hopeless. In Queensland, the advent of the 13MHCALL service was designed to create a single point of entry to mental health services for those in crisis. I recently spent a good deal of time talking to a clinician through this number as he tried to convince me to let him call an ambulance for me; I was discharged from emergency within 3 hours of this call, having addressed none of what made me call in the first place.

My story is only one person’s experience. There are many and varied tales of accessing health services, and the Youth Health Forum will be invaluable in bringing our voices together. I implore clinicians, carers, and politicians to listen carefully and critically to what you hear; to analyse your own attitudes and actions towards young consumers; and to ask yourself what you can do better.

There is already shame and guilt lumped on us when we are diagnosed with any chronic illness at a young age. Let’s take this opportunity to make it better for the future.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash