Mental illness is the most challenging thing I’ve faced in my life. Here’s why.

In recent times depression and mental illness have been in the news again after the tragic death of high profile former AFL player and Television personality Danny Frawley .

Danny had spoken publicly about his battle with the “black dog” and many around him had assumed that he had recovered and his mental health had returned and he was in a good place.

He was a member of the hugely successful AFL program “Bounce” on Fox Footy and was for all intents and purposes the life of the party.

We now know Danny Frawley finally succumbed to depression and his death rocked the Australian sporting community, in particular his many fans in the AFL.  

It took me a couple of years before I even contemplated the idea of speaking publicly and telling my story publicly about my battles with mental illness.

My experience with mental illness was raw, confronting and traumatic. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve faced in my life.

Even after I was asked to write a book, (three years after my initial breakdown ) it took at least a year to come around to the idea.

There’s still such a stigma around any type of mental health issue.

It still exists today, but it’s not as bad.

I eventually felt that if I wasn’t going to be part of the solution, I was going to be part of the problem.

One of the reasons is very altruistic, I do want to make a difference, I do want to help the next family, the next person because there’s no real tool-book with this stuff.

But having thought about it a bit more in the last decade, the real reason both books were written were for me.

As selfish as that might sound, it was extremely cathartic to get it onto paper and was definitely part of the healing process.

You can move through it and move past it and look back at the experience very much from a perspective that this doesn’t touch me anymore.

It was important to deal with my own issues before trying to help others.

You can’t help someone else with something unless you’ve sorted it yourself.

Particularly with bipolar disorder and the massive highs and lows that go with it, it’s a management thing, you’ve got to manage it.

It’s a tricky customer managing big mood swings.

Some of the strategies that I’ve found helpful are getting plenty of sleep, minimizing alcohol consumption, eating well and alternative therapies such as reiki, massage and acupuncture.

It took time to recognise the warning signs of the illness.

It’s taken a good while for that insight to come and you get to know yourself better.

The trick is the high, because in the early stages of becoming elevated in your mood you feel great, and you don’t sense there’s a problem and you don’t see yourself winding up and getting towards the stage where you may become manic.

Believe me, no-one goes and sees a doctor when they’re high.

You feel better than good, but the price you pay during and on the other side of that is not worth it.

After highs, the depression that follows is truly awful so I recognized (after a good while I might add) that when you sense the signs of that manic state approaching you can “nip it in the bud” by slowing down, meditating, avoiding stimulants like caffeine, and doing yoga or literally taking your shoes off, walking on the grass to ground yourself.

However, the very nature of Bipolar disorder means there are still no guarantees that a manic episode can be prevented.

Manic episodes and the crippling depression that usually follows can we so hard to manage it can leave you significantly debilitated.

It’s not until you experience these episodes that you truly get an understanding of how hard the road can be.

I still believe there is so much more to learn about how our brains process things and the impact trauma, both emotional and physical, can impact on our mental health.

This is a whole of community issue.

It’s important for individuals, families, friends, workplaces and sporting clubs.

It’s not just Danny Frawley that’s inspired me to write this today, although the outpouring of public emotion after his death was certainly at the forefront of my mind.

It was the eight other Australians who will take their lives today, the eight others who will do the same tomorrow, the many more who will try and survive and those that consider taking their lives and not go any further.

There’s always a road back.

Social media and its impact on mental health

There has been a great deal of focus lately about the impact social media usage has on our mental health.

In my view, social media is a wonderful way to stay in touch with friends, meet new people, promote your business and focus on the things that you’re passionate about.

I use social media but I’m very conscious about how much time daily I devote to the online world.

Does social media have a negative impact on our mental health?

In my view in many cases, absolutely.

I believe the issue is not the use of social media but the overuse of social media.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are probably the most common forms of social media but there are others. Snapchat, Reddit, Linkedin…the list goes on. Giving every person multiple social media channels to spend time on.

In recent times Facebook’s founding President Sean Parker has commented that he knew they were creating something addictive that exploited “a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Parker described how in the early days of Facebook people would tell him that they weren’t on social media because they valued their real-life interactions.

And he would reply “OK. You know, you will be.”

He went on to explain that when Facebook was being developed the objective was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

It was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the “like” button that would give users “a little dopamine hit”.

In my view, this is the crux of the problem

Dopamine is the naturally produced “feel good chemical“ that makes us feel great and a regular “hit” of dopamine can be highly addictive.

For all the positives that the use of social media provides the downside is the lack of attention we might pay to other areas of our lives and this need to get a “hit” of dopamine on a regular basis.

Facebook obviously isn’t in the same league as cocaine, speed or other illicit drugs which give you a high, but it can still provide a little “high” every day.

Social media can also validate someone’s view of themselves and raise self-esteem which for many kids who struggle socially can be very helpful in developing relationships.

The opposite can be true for the sensitive and vulnerable teenager who receives negative messages on social media.

Cyber-bullying is real and has resulted in tragic outcomes in some cases

There has been an increasing number of teenagers whose mental health has been negatively affected by online bullying.

The worst case scenario has been suicide.

Many parents are extremely concerned about their kid’s usage of social media and quite rightly so.

There is no quick fix to online bullying, but in my view, the short answer is to report it and block the perpetrator straight away.

Someone who bullies you has no place in your life.

Then find other ways to build self-confidence besides social media.

Learning self-defence is a great place to start. Not just so you can physically handle yourself but it really is a great way to raise self-esteem.

There are other downsides of excessive social media use.

When you’re looking at your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feed you’re not exercising and exercise is good for your physical health and your mental health.

I find it staggering when I see a group of friends get together. I’m not just talking about the 12 to 18 years of age here, I’m also talking about many people in their 40’s and 50’s. There can be 4 or 5 friends sitting around a table having coffee and EVERYONE of them is on an iPhone and not talking to one another.

Talking to each other is good for our overall mental health aside from the obvious benefits of maintaining our language skills.

So have a good think about it today. Do you overuse social media?

Becoming mentally stronger

Adding more resistance, adversity, or stress is one way and learning how to adapt to the challenge is another. Yet for all of these ways to get stronger, without removing the obstacles in our own approach to adversity, we often see little gain. So if you want to get stronger mentally, here are five things I try to concentrate on.


It’s taken me a long time to know what is my responsibility and what is not. What I aim to do is take responsibility for my behaviour, my thoughts and my feelings. I now know that I need to let go of the idea that anyone is going to make things better for me. This is sometimes very difficult to achieve and I have certainly struggled with it over the years particularly when I’ve been severely depressed. Whilst I know that sometimes things happen that are out of my control, it is my responsibility to decide how to respond to these things.

I think it’s important to understand this. As hard as it is sometimes, it’s easy to point the finger and blame someone else for “messing up my day”.

Taking things personally

We all get setbacks and often come out stronger as a result. To improve mental resilience we need to stop believing that anyone “has it out for us” or “that the world is against us”. The result of other people’s actions, thoughts, and feelings — are often totally out of our control and we are not responsible for them. So why waste energy wondering why others do the things they do and spend more time on the things we can control and know the difference.

The future

We cannot predict the future. I don’t waste any time anticipating or foretelling the future. Because I know the action is right here, right now, in the present moment and the future is not now. I also know that when my mind is in the future, it’s not in the now, and I’m likely to miss critical details and make mistakes — simply because I was distracted by what could happen instead of focusing on what is happening.

Letting go

While we all love to dream and often to achieve anything new and exciting in life we need to dream about the possibilities but still retain the awareness that until the building blocks or foundation stones to achieving that dream are in place, those dreams are not reality.

The chances are, it will not “all just work out”. More than likely, there will be good and bad. Thinking life is “all good”, is just a fantasy that promotes denial. And denying what might not be going so well is a sure way to keep it going that way.

The past

For many of us, holding on the past would allow us to avoid loss. Yet I believe it’s important to know that wishing things “could just go back to the ways they were,” is a wish, and not reality. I know the past — as good or bad as it might have been — is gone. And I also know you can’t drive a car, and you can’t go through life, looking backwards.

So I accept the losses, and instead of wishing I could go back in time, I think about what I need to do in the present. Because focusing on the wonderful things happening yesterday is a sure way to miss the opportunities that might be right in front of you.

And lastly

I know that becoming mentally well is often a tough and hard earned battle — one that is not won overnight. And while sometimes we have to learn how to fine tune our approach and leverage the adversity, sometimes we also have to learn how to get out of our own way.

Why reducing stigma surrounding mental illness is important

During the first year and for some time after being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I went through a grieving process for the person I thought I was and for the loss of my identity. I was in denial, I was angry, shocked and saddened by my diagnosis and it has taken a very long time to find peace with myself and an acceptance of my condition.

Mental illness in one of its many forms, affects 1 in 4 Australians, meaning most people will know at least one person with a mental health issue during their lifetime. Even with this incredibly high statistic, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness as opposed to physical illness and the old images of asylums and straight jackets still arouse fear and suspicion in people where there should be compassion and understanding.
The main reason I have been so willing to tell my story openly was to try and help break down that stigma associated with mental illness. When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I struggled with the fact there was very little information available that was digestible and helpful for my family and I.

I decided very early on that as someone working in the media and in the public eye, I was in the perfect position to tell my story to help others and therefore become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
In the years since my initial manic episode, I have for the majority of the time been very well which is not to say there have not been some very difficult periods for me and my family.

I have learnt that it is important to see stress for what it actually is – and that is a “fight or flight” instinct that we humans have which would have been useful when we had to spear animals for food or run from woolly mammoths! However, this chemical reaction to what we in the modern day consider being in a stressful situation is not so useful. Stressing out when you are in the queue at the post office because you are running late just isn’t useful – it is not a life or death situation!

I ask people to observe how they react in a stressful situation and whether or not that much emotional energy is necessary. I try not to let my emotions overwhelm me and I look at just how important the situation is in the grand scheme of things. It is important for me and for everyone really, to consider our responses and whether or not it is worth getting stressed about something outside of our control.

I think what many people worry about once they have had a mental health diagnosis is will I be able to function in normal life?

The answer, of course, is “yes” but not only that – you can live a great life.

I honestly believe my diagnosis is a gift, one that has allowed me to take an inventory of my life and forced me to take a good hard look at my choices and change what I can. I look back over my life and realise that although some of it is not pretty, I am also very grateful for what I have. I also understand the importance of being responsible for yourself and not blaming others or external situations.

I think it is especially important for young people and school students to be really informed about mental health issues and know that the stigma associated with mental illness is becoming less prevalent every day and rightly so.

There are many children living with depression or mental illness at home and by ‘normalising’ it, it not only breaks the stigma associated with mental health, it takes away the fear and equips young people with the tools to know how to help themselves and others.

I can’t just talk the talk; I have to walk the walk so I try hard to keep my balance between work and home a top priority! I enjoy work but I also include relaxing and energising activities into my week – I practice yoga at home, although not as often as I would like, as well as invigorating walks along the beach to reduce the chance of stress building up.

I don’t drink much alcohol anymore and I try to keep my use of social media down to a minimum. As a society, we are all so wired up to electronic devices and screens all the time – our minds are not designed to be ‘on’ 24/7 – it is no wonder people today feel stressed and anxious.
The harrowing experiences with severe episodes of depression have pushed me towards examining the big ‘why are we here’ questions and so opened up the spiritual side of my life that had previously been closed off.
As a community, I believe we all need to take responsibility for breaking down the barriers that prevent people from taking action before it is too late.

I want to keep spreading the message that you must not be embarrassed or ashamed about having a mental health issue.

The road back to good mental health

Life is a challenge. Often in life, our greatest challenges, adversity or suffering opens the way for us to experience the lessons we need for growth.

This has been my experience. If you had said to me fifteen years ago that there are hidden gifts in suffering, I would have dismissed the idea outright. In fact, for a year of my life at age 37, suffering made no sense at all and as my life began unravelling on all levels, the ‘quick fix’ was almost always at the forefront of my thoughts.

I was clinically depressed midway through the year 2000 and, at my lowest point, suicidal. Now I look back at this time as the beginning of my spiritual awakening. There had been many taps on my shoulder during the preceding years and all had been ignored. My life was so out of balance in every area and serious illness was the result.

The next chapter

In the years following that traumatic time, I have been able to reflect a great deal about the illness and the best way to manage it and stay well. There has also been an ongoing search for meaning, as well as the answer as to why this had to happen and turn my life upside down.

The next period of my life was spent walking in the ‘house of mirrors’ having an honest look at myself. It was not pretty. For most of my life, my thoughts went unchallenged, decisions were made without any consideration for consequences and little responsibility was taken for outcomes, unless of course they were favourable. My experience taught me a life lived in this way results in complete chaos. Life can be hectic, stressful and chaotic. It can also be the opposite if we stop and listen to ourselves and be honest about the way we live our lives.

The choices we make and the responsibility we take for those choices is all part of the learning, growing and healing process. Change is always possible, and in my case, was absolutely necessary. If you watch the film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray you will get some idea of what I am talking about.

In short, if you are keen on doing every day what you have always done, you will keep on getting the same results!

The gift is that I have survived and can share what I have learned

I do not claim to have all the answers, but simply say I am more aware, ready to share and prepared to learn more. Bipolar disorder, like so many other mental illnesses, has a stigma associated with it that makes management of the condition even more difficult than it should be. For many people with Bipolar disorder, dealing with the illness and coming to terms with sometimes severe mood swings is something managed in secrecy, away from the eyes of even close friends and family. I know there is a road back to good health; I’ve been walking that road for 15 years.

My self-awareness is more finely tuned today to my stress levels and when I need to pull back, slow down and rest for the most part, I do. In the area of mental health, I simply want to make a difference. I believe we all need to drop the stigma attached to mental illness and make it easier for those who need to reach out and get help. There have been many blessings that have come from my experience.

A wise man once said: ‘If you want to change the world, start with yourself’.

Become responsible for your own mental health

My own experience with mental illness has taught me many valuable life lessons. The most important lesson has been that by creating an environment which promotes healing both on a mental and physical level, recovery is possible. My experience with clinical depression and bipolar disorder turned my life upside down and it took time and a fundamental change in my attitude to re-balance my life and regain optimum health. I believe we can all change and improve our health.

Our choices everyday impact on our health tomorrow

Today, my health is good but I no longer take my health for granted and assume it will always be good as I once did. By making good decisions and taking ownership over my own well-being I intend to keep it that way. For the past decade I have been sharing what I have learnt through my own experience of mental illness by speaking publicly in many forums around Australia.

I have also written two books. Broken Open (published 2004) and A Better Life (2012). Both books map out my experiences and the road I’ve walked to recovery.

The 21st century, with all our technological advancements still presents many challenges on the health front. Stress, anxiety, depression and other forms of mental ill health are for many people a daily reality.

Taking the first step

It took me many years to realise that our physical, mental and spiritual health are all interwoven and by becoming more “aware“ of our lifestyle and how we recognise our stress and relieve stress, we change our health for the better. It is possible, but recognising that change is necessary as the first step. For most of us, stress is only noticeable when it affects our sense of wellbeing and starts to have a negative impact on our work life, relationships, energy levels, mood and sleep patterns.

Usually by the time all those things are being negatively affected the stress level is already high, anxiety may be present and mild or moderate depression may be present as well. Then, some of us act to change things and take action but many of us still do nothing, assuming we are powerless to work through the issues and continue to suffer the effects of poor mental health.

Becoming aware

I have learnt some very valuable lessons along the way and now firmly believe that being “more aware” of our mood, sleep pattern, stress levels, workload, diet, emotions, self-talk (the voice in your head that judges everything including ourselves!) the better our mental health will be. A big part of achieving this “awareness” is actually becoming responsible for our mental health and owning our choices every day.

It takes effort to make change but the effort is worth it

By consciously doing things each day that minimise stress (meditate, exercise, yoga) we CREATE an environment where stress, anxiety and depression don’t have to be the overriding experiences in our lives. I believe the key to managing these states of ill health is to make a change before we need to!