Trio proof mental illness diagnosis can have a happy ending
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Trio proof mental illness diagnosis can have a happy ending

Searching for a diagnosis

Shae Nicholson, 20

Finding answers: Shaemaree Nicholson, 20, hopes her book will help reduce the stigma of mental illness.

Finding answers: Shaemaree Nicholson, 20, hopes her book will help reduce the stigma of mental illness.Credit:Jamila Toderas

The life of budding author Shae Nicholson is a lot like that of the main character in her debut novel.

She's felt loss. And she's grappling with her mental health.

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In balance: Samantha Davidson Fuller,  the Executive Officer of Mental Illness Education ACT, has bipolar disorder.

In balance: Samantha Davidson Fuller, the Executive Officer of Mental Illness Education ACT, has bipolar disorder.

"After my dad passed away I had three weeks of being perfectly fine and then I crashed," Ms Nicholson said.

"I was self-harming. I started freaking out. I needed to do something to fix this."

The 20-year-old is in the process of diagnosing a mental illness, believed to be bipolar or post-traumatic stress disorder, after originally being diagnosed with depression about five years ago.

"At the beginning of this year I could feel myself getting worse, feel myself getting paranoid, and I knew it just wasn't something I could deal with by myself," she said.

Relaxation technique: Going for a drive helps Greg Francis to unwind.

Relaxation technique: Going for a drive helps Greg Francis to unwind.Credit:Jamila Toderas

"Acknowledging it was something I couldn't fix was really devastating. Actually speaking about it was even worse [but] maybe a bit of a relief."

There may be obstacles but Ms Nicholson's path is constantly winding forward.

She has almost completed her year 12 studies through CIT and looks forward to starting a Certificate III in social work next year.

"Like with most things, mental illness comes with good days and bad days; bad days are debilitating, on good days I can be unbelievably motivated and get a lot done," she said.

"Going from feeling moderately in control to being completely out of control, to be sitting there and crying for no particular reason, it can be terrifying. It's just making sure I pick up from that."

Ms Nicholson hopes her story – and her novel – will encourage a greater understanding of mental health and a consequent increase in the number of people who seek help when they're struggling.

"I'm kind of using it as an aim to break stigma but it's also quite cathartic for me ... " she said.

Fittingly, she will dedicate the final chapters of her novel to recovery.

"Life doesn't stop after a diagnosis. You still have things that you want to do, you still have aspirations. You don't stop being a person."

Leading the way

Samantha Davidson Fuller, 40

When Samantha Davidson Fuller returned to work after a short stint of sick leave three years ago everything changed.

Responsibilities were taken away from her then-management role. There was no conversation around what she could handle.

Ms Fuller Davidson was experiencing her first bout of workplace discrimination after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"I actually said, 'I have bipolar' and took a few weeks off from work, recovered, then came back but everything was different for me from that point on – and that was a health organisation," she said.

"If anything it was quite disempowering."

Now 40 and the executive officer of Mental Illness Education ACT, she said her organisation wouldn't exist if there wasn't a stigma attached to mental illness.

"I work in mental health because I do feel strong and capable," she said.

"When people find out about my lived experience you can see it, you can see it in their face that you're breaking down a stereotype of what it means for someone to have bipolar disorder."

Before her career accelerated, Ms Davidson Fuller rode a roller coaster of emotions and grades during her early years of tertiary study.

But the confusion and bewilderment of going from a high distinction one assignment to a fail the next was more than just stress.

"I was very hard on myself at that time," she said.

"All my friends were graduating and I was still re-doing units and they couldn't understand how I could go from getting the highest marks possible to disappearing off the face of the earth."

Ms Davidson Fuller had her first psychotic break at 19 and by 21 was misdiagnosed with depression.

Almost two decades later at 37 she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"I've spent most of my adult life trying to manage something I didn't understand," she said.

Ms Fuller Davidson has learnt to balance the episodic nature of her illness, pre-empting the manic highs and depressive lows, and finding ways to manage it.

She's also learnt that mental illness and well-being are not mutually exclusive.

"I think one of the most detrimental misunderstandings around mental illness or a diagnosis of mental illness is that you can't have high levels of well-being when in fact you can," she said.

"In many cases we have much higher levels of wellness than people without a diagnosis do."

Finding peace

Greg Francis, 67

Sometimes all it takes is a spin in the car to lift Greg Francis's mood.

It's a peaceful, retired life for the 67-year-old car enthusiast, tending to his precious vehicles on a patch of property flanked by suburban bushland.

But life hasn't always been this stable. Mr Francis has bipolar disorder. Stability is his "most precious gift".

"If you've got a mental illness one of the most important things to do is to make sure you keep doing the things that you enjoy," he said.

"It's a point of focus. Even if it just means going for a drive. Once I get in one of the cars I can come back thinking, 'that feels good, I feel better now'."

Mr Francis first started experiencing anxiety in late primary school, stressing over grades and falling into hours of distress when he didn't succeed as hoped.

But little was known about mental illness in the 1960s and his mental health was dubbed a "nervous breakdown".

Left untreated without a diagnosis, the highs and lows developed into bipolar disorder.

For more than 15 years Mr Francis's illness was attributed to an unpredictable personality.

"That was Greg. That's what his life was; chaotic, tumultuous, highly successful, disastrous at relationships," he said.

"I wondered why I couldn't be stable like everyone else."

It hasn't been an easy ride but Mr Francis said the past eight years had been the best of his life thanks to previous group therapy, intensive short courses to help manage his disorder and reducing stress.

"Today I wouldn't know that I've got [a mental illness]; I know I have but I don't feel as if I've got one," he said.

While most people aren't too phased if Mr Francis, who belongs to three car clubs, discloses his mental illness, subconscious stigma still remains.

"We might be up at a weekend in Bathurst and we come back and have a few drinks afterwards," he said.

"It's quite OK for anybody else to have a few drinks and to get garrulous and cheerful. If I do it, suddenly the beers stop coming and I get handed coffee.

"They're doing it with the best intentions. I've probably had enough beer anyway so, what the heck?"

If there was one message he could share with the young men and women grappling with the possibility or diagnosis of mental illness, it would be to speak up.

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"I get angry sometimes with some young people who get a diagnosis and they throw up their hands and say, 'well that's it, I've been diagnosed with this mental illness, that's my life from now on'," he said.

"Community awareness is so much higher now [but] we still get too few people to seek help."