When Kath Laffey was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager, she found some comfort in thoughts of Ernest Hemingway.
"I'd studied [Hemingway] in Year 12 English and I knew he had bipolar disorder, yet he still managed to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature," Mrs Laffey recalled.
"So, clearly, you could still do amazing things with a mental illness."
While Mrs Laffey hasn't become one of history's most influential writers, no one would say the Canberra woman hasn't gone on to do amazing things.
If Hemingway's gift was the written word, Mrs Laffey's must be the spoken word, which she uses as a peer support worker with Woden Community Service.
Mrs Laffey uses her lived experience with bipolar disorder and depression to show the people she supports that someone understands and that they're not alone.
"I've found that [having a mental illness] is not necessarily a killer of your hopes and dreams," Mrs Laffey said.
"You might just go about it a bit differently."
Mrs Laffey used to think that in Canberra, the public service was everything as far as a career was concerned.
But she struggled to sustain full-time work and discovered that studying part-time and working part-time was a better fit, and her dreams eventually focused on helping others.
"I think having a mental illness brings you up close to pain and suffering in a way that brings you a compassion to suffering generally," she said.
"Working in the [mental health] sector is fabulous because people understand. There's something very magical about going to a job interview and saying, 'Yes, I do have a mental illness, and yes I do use it and see it as a force for good in the world'. It's tremendously rewarding work."
Mrs Laffey opened up about her personal experience with mental illness this week ahead of Woden Community Service's Watch Your Wellness festival.
She said volunteering and later working in the mental health sector had turned her perception of herself and her mental illnesses on its head.
"I came to see something that had been shameful and something to be kept secret was actually a source of strength and power, and that it could be a source of hope and encouragement to others," Mrs Laffey said.
"I use that all the time in my work as a peer worker."
Mrs Laffey's work differs greatly depending on the needs of participants in the Woden Community Service programs she works within.
One day might involve helping write letters and sort out insurance, while another might see her supporting someone at the gym.
While mental illness has had an ongoing impact on her life, including during summer when her seasonal depression strikes, Mrs Laffey said there were ways to get through the difficult periods.
Having strong family support was one of the key factors, but there were also small steps people could take to improve their wellbeing, like committing to going on daily walks or spending time doing yoga.
She stressed the importance of taking action early when troubles arise, and not to give up if the support you needed didn't appear at the first attempt.
"Don't be afraid of the stigma, and don't be afraid if you don't find the right help to start with," Mrs Laffey said.
"I have a colleague who says that if you have a bad haircut, you don't stop going to the hairdresser. It's the same thing with mental health practitioners. Keep looking."
She said the Watch Your Wellness festival was "a real celebration of who we are as people who have a mental illness, and of the people who support us".
There will be guest speakers sharing their stories of mental illness and recovery, as well as live music and a range of activities geared towards wellbeing.
Mrs Laffey encouraged everyone to attend. After all, even if you don't have a mental illness, everyone has mental health and needs to take care of themselves.
- The Watch Your Wellness festival is on Friday, October 4, from 11am to 2pm at Eddison Park in Phillip.