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General health & accessing healthcare, mental health, health condition, illness

Living with a mental health condition

NOTE: Quotes are presented word for word apart from minor editing for readability and clarity. Identifying details have been removed. Square brackets show text that has been added, e.g. ‘I want to maintain [my current level of drug use]’. Ellipses within square brackets […] show where text has been removed, e.g. ‘Counselling was good but […] I would have liked more information about other treatment options’.

Living with a mental health condition is concern for many of the people interviewed for this website. The most common conditions experienced were depression and anxiety. Diagnoses of psychosis, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and personality disorders are also mentioned. Some have been diagnosed with more than one condition. When asked if alcohol and other drug consumption is linked to mental health, people express a range of views with some saying consumption can lead to mental health issues or make an existing condition worse. Others say consumption is part of, rather than a threat to, mental health and well-being. They describe how it helps them cope with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Seeking medical care is a key strategy many say they take to cope with mental health issues. They describe a range of ways they seek help or access services, including consulting a doctor or general practitioner (GP), or going to counselling. Some take prescribed medication. A few describe experiences of inpatient hospital treatment for psychosis or attempting suicide. Some began treatment for mental health issues while in alcohol and other drug residential treatment (see also Residential treatment). People also use informal strategies to look after their mental health, either instead of formal health services or to complement them (these strategies are discussed in Looking after health & well-being). Experiencing a mental health issue prompted some to stop or cut down their alcohol and other drug use (see also Changing patterns of consumption). Several people say it’s hard to access health services because of the cost, or because they are concerned they’ll be judged by health professionals or refused healthcare (see also Dealing with stigma & discrimination).

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Consumption & mental health

People express a range of views on the relationship between their alcohol and other drug consumption and their mental health. Some say consuming can lead to a mental health issues or make an existing condition worse.

On one occasion, Ethan (M, 39, works in hospitality, ice) experienced psychosis after taking ice. (Played by an actor)

I had a really bad problem [when] I went to rehab for the first time […My meth use] was, like, in full swing at the time and, yeah, I started getting psychosis […Like] there was a time where I remember I had a shot [of ice and…] I said, ‘I’ve just had too much’, and it was like the psychosis clicked in […] I’d had enough acid to know what hallucinations were like, but for me, the psychosis [meant …] I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and non-reality any more. And even though I could say, ‘This probably isn’t real’, the feeling behind it was so overwhelming, like, the fear was so overwhelming, it was like I didn’t have a choice but to believe it.

Luke (M, 44, works in retail, alcohol) says he consumed alcohol to ‘suppress feelings’ but it ended up making his anxiety ‘ten times worse’.

Initially, when I was younger, it was fun going out [drinking…But then] I was starting to get […] a lot of anxiety and depression and stuff like that, and [… I] started to become a little bit more sheltered and [was] staying at home [more] and drinking to sort of suppress feelings. But then […when I woke] up the next day, all that suppression [had] just exploded again. It [was] about ten times worse than […] it was initially. So [drinking is] like a double-edged sword […] it ends up being worse to drink […] I realise now [that I was having anxiety attacks] because I was drinking too much.

Consuming alcohol and other drugs helps others to cope with mental health issues.

Emma (F, 42, works in retail, alcohol) recalls ‘self-medicating’ with codeine and champagne to be able to ‘get through the day’ without having an anxiety attack.

Part 1

I also suffered from a horrible anxiety disorder. I was always anxious, always, and when I look back at it now I realise how debilitating that anxiety was, and I just didn’t do anything about it. So [I was] self-medicating [with] codeine, which used to numb not only physical pain, but [also] just that hyperactivity that you get when you’re really anxious. It just made me go into, you know, la-la land. So then, yeah, champagne, codeine – before I knew it, you know, it was just like an everyday thing.

Part 2

At the time that was how I coped. That was how I could get through the day without, you know, having an anxiety attack.

Josie (F, 38, not working due to illness, heroin) says taking heroin helps her to ‘block out’ flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

[When I was in my mid-teens I was homeless, and] it was, like, as soon as we opened our eyes it was, like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to go and rort, get some money [to buy heroin]’. And that was our first thing for the day. We had to rort because we wanted to feel better […] Back then, I think, I could go a few days without [heroin] but […] it did take some pain away, physically and mentally […] I’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress [disorder] because of my family situation […] I started having some flashbacks of the violence […] And at that time the doctors were saying, ‘We can get you into counselling’, and stuff like that, but at that point in time, I just shut off. You know, I didn’t want to go and talk about it. I didn’t want to really have to deal with it […] I could have a taste [of heroin and] I could feel good for a while, but then also I could block [the flashbacks] out.

Matthew (M, 49, not working due to illness, cannabis) smokes cannabis to cope with depression and finds it gives him hope and motivation.

When I had trouble at work, I sort of fell into a bit of depression and I was [smoking] to sort of numb the pain […] It was a reward at the start, but then […] I was needing it to be able to switch off bad thoughts and other things. It was like I needed it for my mood. It was like a mood stabiliser, I suppose […] I was using the smoke as a medication to deal with [the depression].

[…Smoking cannabis] just seem[s] to be able to lift your mood and make you think that there’s hope. Like when I got really depressed, like, if I don’t have it for a few days, I’d get pretty depressed but then when I have it, I started to think, ‘Oh well, life’s not that bad, I might be able to go and try another thing, and try and get up out of this’ […] If I’m not having it, I’m just thinking of bad things […] So, it was just like, I don’t know, like medicine I suppose.

Looking after mental health

As part of looking after their mental health many seek information, support or treatment from healthcare services. Some consulted a GP who referred them to counselling and/or prescribed medication. Others began treatment for a mental health condition while in alcohol and other drug residential treatment (see also Residential treatment). A few have experience of inpatient mental healthcare. Informal strategies to look after mental health are also used by many, either as an alternative to formal health services or to complement them (these strategies are discussed in Looking after health & well-being). Experiencing a mental health condition has prompted some to stop or cut down their consumption to look after their mental health and well-being (see also Changing patterns of consumption).

‘Talking therapies’

Some people manage mental health conditions with ‘talking therapies’ or counselling provided by a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor (see also Talking therapies). This is sometimes undertaken in combination with medication treatment. Talking therapy was been helpful for some, while others questioned its effectiveness.

To cope with a number of mental health issues, Max (M, 20, studying, cannabis and party drugs) cut back on cannabis and saw a counsellor. (Note: strong language)

Part 1

I smoked [cannabis] a lot for two and a half years. After my dad died, I started smoking a lot more. I smoked regularly before, but I started smoking like every day for about two years […] So I had to cut back […] a bit, because I was using it as a crutch for depression and anxiety that stemmed from my dad’s death. So I don’t smoke it quite as much [now], because it brings a bit of that back. But I’ll have a joint every now and then with mates, but I just don’t smoke it by myself all that much […] I stopped and then [the depression and anxiety] all hit me as a wave, so I went and saw someone about it and they told me, ‘Yeah, that’s probably all the emotion that you weren’t feeling, you were kind of numbing [it] with weed and there it is’.

Part 2

[I was having] visual hallucinations, a few auditory [hallucinations], a bit of audio-visual stuff. I was having trouble sleeping because of it. It’s hard to sleep when you think things are flying at you and shit. It was confronting, but they put me on some [medication] and counselled me for a bit […Going through counselling] was kind of shitty and no fun, but it had to be done.

Harry (M, 52, works in the arts, heroin) consulted two health professionals for depression and says their treatment approach was well-intentioned but ‘slightly misguided’.

I went to a psych [psychologist] for a year, and that was after I split with my partner […] it was all because of the separation from my child – that was the difficult bit. But we went into, you know, psychoanalysis and why you take drugs, or why you did take drugs, and things like that. And [her] attitude was that the drug controls you, you don’t control the drug. That was all I was getting from my psych. And the psych was right into the idea of 12-step, you know, NA [Narcotics Anonymous], which I […] just hold no truck with. Because […] I don’t have a greater being, I’m an atheist. [… To say that] the drug controls me, [that] I don’t have any control, well, actually I do. I do [have control]. I’m choosing to do this […] Well, anyway […the psychologist] said, ‘Okay, you’re really depressed. You’re possibly suicidal’ […The psychologist] was also connected to [a] doctor. So, you put a psychologist and a doctor together and you’ve got a two-headed psychiatrist [laugh], which is what I had […] They were both nice people. Their aim was true, I’m sure, just maybe slightly misguided. So I went along with the whole thing. But, yeah, ‘You’re depressed,’ and it was something I had to work […] through. And it wasn’t about drugs at that point, even though that was a part of it. It was about the separation from the child. But then it was, ‘Right, well take this [medication]’, and [they] threw drugs at me. It was like, right, okay, you’ve got problems with drugs, I think the best way I can deal with this, is give you more drugs. […] The hypocrisy just seemed ridiculous to me.

Medication treatment

Many have been prescribed medication to treat a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, psychosis or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Their experiences of medication treatment vary, with some finding it helpful in managing their symptoms, and others finding the effects unpleasant. A few say they became dependent on the medication.

Sydalicious (F, 44, works in the health sector, cannabis) initially avoided medication treatment for ADHD but now finds it helps her to focus and complete her daily tasks.

Even now, like, after being diagnosed with ADHD over a period of nearly five years by my psychiatrist, to be prescribed dexamphetamine, is really, like, there’s that battle again for me. Like, I really know where I was [when I was taking speed and] why I’m not [taking it any more], but they’re offering me pure speed tablets. And yeah, agreed, you know, it took a long time for me to accept the script [for dexamphetamine], and I don’t pick them up regularly and I don’t take them regularly because they’re addictive […But] they do help my ADHD when I need to focus and, like, not be running around the room. [They help me focus] on one thing. So, for that reason, you know, I understand why I’ve been prescribed them, so I will take them for that reason. There are some days where I wake up and go, ‘Oh, there’s no way I’m getting out of bed,’ and, like, I’ve got appointments or whatever; two dexamphetamines and I don’t even realise that I’ve gotten up and had a shower, had my breakfast and I’m out the door. So I’m focused, you know? […But] I’m really aware of not abusing them.

Opal (M, 45, primary carer to his children, alcohol and prescription painkillers) took antidepressants to manage anxiety and depression, but found their effects unpleasant. (Note: strong language)

Part 1

I sort of realised I had to stop drinking again, but it was easy because it was like, ‘Well, I’m not using the alcohol to make me feel this way any more, or take away the anxiety’ […] This strong pain medication just took its place very easily and very quickly, virtually overnight almost. So then, of course, there was the court stuff [trying to get custody of my children] and everything and […] the only thing that kept me going early in the piece, with the huge amount of anxiety it was creating for me, was the fact that I was taking those pain tablets and the Valium (diazepam) that the doctor was giving me. But I got off the Valium very easily. I spoke to the doctor and said, ‘Listen, I don’t really think these are doing anything for me any more’.

Part 2

Over the years, [I’ve] tried a lot of different depression tablets and stuff, but I just didn’t like what they did to me, because I really felt my depression was a result of my situation in life and what I was going through, more so than it [being…] a chemical imbalance or what[ever] they say. Yeah, I didn’t like how [the medication] knocked me out. They would just completely drop me like a log and I would wake up the next day like a robot. You know, I wouldn’t be able to function. You know, nothing was sad, nothing was happy, you know. And I just didn’t like that […] I was like, if I [have] had a shit day, I want to feel sad. So it was a very difficult situation.

Annemarie (F, 59, works in marketing, prescription drugs) began taking benzodiazepines for panic attacks but after a while she found she had to increase the dose to get the desired effect and says she became ‘addicted’ to them.

Part 1

I was a single mother and […] I was experiencing quite extreme panic attacks. I was working at the time and I really couldn’t afford to […] not work because these panic attacks were causing me to have to get up and flee. I went to the GP, and he thought I had postnatal depression, so he put me on Serepax [oxazepam, a benzodiazepine] then. He put me on quite a high dose. He put me on three tablets, 30mg tablets every day, and that […] didn’t make me feel, sort of, euphoric or anything like that. It just made me feel normal, back to being able to function, [to] go to work.

[…]

They were sort of almost like too good to be true. They just fixed everything for about three weeks, and then I had to take more to get the same [effect…So] after that period of time, I started thinking that I was waiting for my next dose. […] I’d take them three times a day, [and] I would find that the time would shorten that they’d be effective. So, if I had to take one, say, at 8 o’clock in the morning and then another one at say 2, I’d find that around 12 [or] 1 o’clock I’d start getting fidgety and quite anxious.

Part 2

I tried to keep it on the same amount but it wasn’t actually getting rid of my panic. It was just containing it. So it wasn’t having the desired effect anymore. It wasn’t the same effect that I had when I was first given it. All it was doing, was making me just […] able to function, so that was really about all.

Part 3

I’d start to […] feel the panic coming on and I would be waiting for the next dose. And even though I recognised that as, ‘I’m addicted to these things’, I just didn’t know what to do and when I brought it up with [the doctor] he would just say that’s just a sign [that] you really are quite unwell.

Inpatient treatment

A few people describe experiences of inpatient treatment for mental health issues such as psychosis or attempting suicide. Inpatient treatment is described by some as having helped them to manage their conditions and reduce their alcohol or other drug use. Some also say the experience can be distressing.

John (M, 34, works in the health sector, ice) was involuntarily admitted to hospital when experiencing psychosis, which led him to reduce his ice consumption.

There have been a couple of occasions [when] I’ve […] been in psychosis, and one of those occasions I needed to be hospitalised for about five days […I had been taking ice quite a lot, and] I found myself being very paranoid, [thinking] that people were trying to hurt me. Yeah, and that kind of led to me freaking out and doing things that I wouldn’t normally do, I guess, and making threats that I wouldn’t normally make, and that led to my hospitalisation […] The five days that I was in hospital I was quite anxious, and very nervous and frightened. I don’t know what I was frightened of exactly, but, you know, I guess I was coming down off [ice] as well, so that didn’t help.

[…Going to hospital] didn’t stop my dependence but it did make me sit back and realise that, you know, I’d gone too far, I’d been using [ice] too much, for an extended period of time, and I need[ed] to cut back and take it a bit easy.

Sophie (F, 38, primary carer for her children, heroin) says receiving inpatient psychiatric treatment for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia was ‘a very bad experience’.

[When I’d just had my baby, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia], and they put me in hospital for four months and I got out. And then six years later, I had some ice […] and that’s when I was seeing dead people […] walking around and I was really scared.

[…] They put me in [a psychiatric ward]. It was a very bad experience […] I remember screaming and crying. They were [giving me] a lot of drugs, a lot of psych meds. I wasn’t allowed to have no visitors. I was isolated […I did] everything […] I could to get out of there […] I’m still on psych meds […Now] I won’t touch ice because I truly believe that’s [what] causes the hallucinations.

Difficulty accessing mental health services

Accessing mental health services has been difficult for several because of the financial cost or age restrictions on some treatment services. Misja (M, 40, not working due to illness, cannabis) was seeing a psychologist but ‘stopped going because you can only [claim a certain number of] sessions a year on Medicare’ and he couldn’t afford to pay for extra sessions. Nadia (F, 32, not working due to injury, prescription painkillers) stopped attending a youth counselling service when she turned 21 because she says ‘there was no funding for [her] to see [her counsellor] after that age’.

Sophie (F, 38, primary carer for her children, heroin) says her psychiatric medication is expensive and wonders what she’ll do when she can no longer afford it.

[The mental health clinic] are supposed to be getting […] my [psychiatric] medicine organised […] I’m supposed to be picking [it] up for zero [… but] I’m paying six, seven dollars per prescription. I mean, it’s unbelievable. What happens if I don’t have the money to pick them up? Do I not take my medications? Do I start acting up again? […] If a person hasn’t got the money to pick up their medication, well, what are they to do?

When seeking treatment or support, some describe being turned away from mental health services.

Renee (F, 35, works in hospitality, ice) has been diagnosed with several mental health conditions but says she is ‘never sick enough’ to get the mental healthcare she needs.

Mental health [services have] labelled me with major depression, PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks. Every time I went to mental health [services], whether I was clean and sober or using still in active addiction, they’d always give me a new label. Even if I [saw] the same doctor, they’d still give me the same label or another label, so I was feeling a bit, like, unidentified, I guess, for a while. I think, you know, even in jail, no one addresses mental health. When I did use the mental health facilities, I was never sick enough for them to help me. I’ve always had, like, the 1800 [phone] number [for a telephone help-line], like, given to me just in case things are getting overwhelming, [things like] that, you know. At one stage, I was ringing my Probation and Parole Officer and telling her, ’I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’m feeling really overwhelmed, I can’t face society today’, in my clean and sober time, and she told me to go to [a] mental health [service] and [the service has] just [said], ‘Well, you’re not sick enough so here’s a 1800 [phone] number. If you do keep feeling this way, just give them a call’. Well, I ended up nearly insane. My poor partner didn’t know how to handle me. I was just rocking and crying, just hysterical and nothing really bad [had] happened. It just happened. So that’s when I really started looking at it, like my mental health, because I was going to ring my dealer and go, ‘Yeah, bring something’, you know, but I didn’t, you know, and that’s when I started looking at things really different[ly], from that day onwards, because I wasn’t using for nearly a month then, before that happened. Like, I was three days shy of a month and, yeah, I didn’t want to [start taking ice again], I knew I didn’t want to, you know, but my mental health, yeah, was out of control. So I felt like really unidentified.

When Jack (M, 38, works in retail, prescription drugs) asked his doctor to prescribe antidepressants, he says he was dismissed as ‘doctor shopping’.

I went [to a doctor] looking for an antidepressant and [he] dismissed me straightaway. He was very rude, and he obviously thought I was doctor shopping […] I was really depressed and I wasn’t sleeping well and I didn’t go in there saying, ‘I want this’ or ‘I want that’. I said, ‘I need something to [help me] sleep and I need something for my anxiety’. I said ‘I’ve just come out of a relationship and I’m not doing well’, and he said – I can’t quote him verbatim, because my memory is not that good – but he said something along the lines of, ‘Sorry, I’m not that kind of doctor’, and I went out of there with nothing, not [even] a referral.

Negative experiences of mental healthcare services make some reluctant to seek support. A few fear being judged if they disclose their alcohol and other drug use to health professionals (see also Dealing with stigma & discrimination).

Lucy (F, 34, works in retail, cannabis) fears being ‘judged’ by mental healthcare services if she tells them she smokes cannabis. (Played by an actor)

I have been to see a counsellor because I had postnatal depression [but] I wouldn’t tell her that I was smoking [marijuana]. Maybe I’m judging myself more than they would [judge me], but I didn’t even tell them […] I guess I felt more comfortable when I was younger if I was seeing a doctor and admitting [I smoke], but now that I’m older, I feel like I’ll just be judged […] I wouldn’t mention it and I have never really ever gone for drug counselling or anything, you know, it’s never been a thing. So, yeah, and I guess I wouldn’t probably, even though I’ve had times where I’ve thought, ‘Yeah, this is becoming a problem’. Like, why do I need this every day? Why do I tell myself that? Yeah, I don’t go [and] do anything about it, because I don’t want people to judge me. Quite simply.

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