Mental illness can be a lonely, scary and dark existence, says one nurse who is sharing her secret to bring about change.
For Belinda McCormack, living with mental illness has been a very personal journey. For years it has been a part of her she kept well hidden from colleagues, acquaintances and even many friends.
In a brave effort to reduce the stigma that is still associated with mental illness, McCormack, who has bipolar, has laid bare her experiences on a new DVD education resource for undergraduate nurses at CQUniversity.
It is her hope that sharing her “warts and all account” will help those working in the health and community sector have a better understanding of mental illness – something she believes needs improvement.
“If I need to be the face of mental illness to reduce stigma that is something I am willing to do. I am no longer ashamed of having a mental illness,” says McCormack.
On the DVD McCormack talks about her experiences from diagnosis to recovery including her initial misdiagnosis, the impact of her medication and how mental health services both provided and shattered her sense of hope.
Her first episode of ill health occurred when she was 21. On being admitted to the psychiatric unit, McCormack says she totally lost touch with reality. It was the most frightening experience she has had.
“It goes way beyond fear – it was pure torture. I didn’t know I was unwell, I didn’t know what was going on.
“Nobody told me anything. All of a sudden I was thrust into this world where I had no control. I was unwell, I couldn’t leave and I had no say in what medication I was given. I remember once I was so medicated I couldn’t talk; I just sat there and dribbled.
“More than 18 years have passed since then but I can still see the seclusion room I was put in, still remember the patients and the names of the nurses.”
She also remembers the boredom.
“That is the real killer in the unit, just the absolute boredom. And that is still the same today. You’re unwell, agitated, you want to go 100 miles and hour. But there is nothing to do except drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. That was your entire day, drinking decaf coffee and watching the clock for the next cigarette.”
The first four years after being discharged were tough. The medication she was on was too strong, making it hard to function. She could barely get out of bed some mornings, let alone work.
Life started to change for the better when she was placed on different medication. Able to function again she went to university to study trauma counseling. After successfully completing the 12 month course she got her confidence back.
McCormack now wanted to get as far away from the mental health system as possible. Moving to Brisbane she got her own flat and got a job as a youth worker in the prison system. Next she worked as a security guard at the airport. It was here she decided she wanted to become a nurse.
Eighteen months later she was an enrolled nurse. It was when working as an agency nurse in small country towns through Queensland that she got to see things from the other side and what nurses thought of people with mental illness.
“As a nurse the other nurses were fine with me. They didn’t know that I had bipolar as I always kept it separate from my work,” she says.
“We would have patients come in with acute pain for whatever their condition was but once it was discovered the person suffered from depression, all of a sudden the pain was psychological, it wasn’t real and the care would deteriorate.
“My feeling at the end was that while you would want these nurses to look after you in life and death situations, you wouldn’t want them to treat you if you had a mental illness.”
This lack of understanding may be the result of limited mental health education in universities, says Wendy Hoey, acting nurse director at Central Queensland Mental Health Service.
“There has been a big increase in mental health content in undergraduate study but it could still be improved,” says Hoey, who appears in the DVD.
“This DVD is not specific for mental health nurses but is for all nurses. Every day in their career nurses will come across someone with a mental illness. Just because you have schizophrenia, it doesn’t mean you can’t break your leg.
“It (the DVD) doesn’t always paint nurses and other medical staff in the best light, but that is important in learning how to do things better.”
It also includes insights for the mental health sector and the wider community, enhancing engagement on the issue.
One of these insights is that people with mental illness will find a surer path to coping if they are accepted in the community and if their plight is better understood.
Another is that mental illness is more prevalent than most people realise and mental health clients come from all walks of life.
“The message I hope to get across by telling my story is that people with mental illness are no different to anybody else. We are police officers, we are nurses, we are the teller at the bank – mental illness doesn’t discriminate,” says McCormack.
“It’s helpful for people to understand that acute phases of illness may only occur for short periods with years of being well in between.
“Most of us live and manage some form of illness or disease and mental illness is no different. It is only stigma that separates mental illness from any other illness and this is brought about by ignorance and lack of education on the topic.”
CQUniversity’s Professor Brenda Happell said it was important for students to access the client and consumer perspective of mental health services.
Happell, who is professor of contemporary nursing and director of the Institute for Health and Social Science Research, says the resource helps students see the person behind the diagnosis, and to appreciate that people diagnosed with a mental illness are first and foremost people, with the same hopes, wishes and dreams as the rest of us.
“This DVD is better than any textbook. We need to move beyond the rhetoric of saying we are consumer focused and demonstrate this to students by involving consumers as advisors, writers and teachers in our nursing programs.”
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