Mental Health Matters - Why I Chose to Become a Mental Health Professional

Jack and I attend the Ryan Catholic College Stand With Us Day 2017

This coming week is Mental Health Week, and my colleague Jack has asked me to answer the following questions:

1. Why is mental health important to me?
2. Why did I choose to go into a professional that seeks to “help” or “improve” mental health?

I think the best way to start is by talking about one of the best random encounters with a stranger I’ve ever had...

A few weeks ago I was waiting to board my ferry home, ready to fall into bed because of “that damn cold” that everyone seemed to get this year. I was approached by a guy asking where we purchase tickets at night, as the terminal was closed. Without hesitation I helped him out, and then apologised for almost sneezing on him. Now usually being a sneezy, coughing-mess of a human will deter people from talking to you, let alone coming within a 5 metre radius. This guy however was not deterred. As we boarded the ferry, Nice Guy, (as we will refer to him) asked if it was okay to sit with me. Now, I’d just finished an almost twelve-hour day and was feeling less than chatty, but my good manners prevailed and I responded with “you’re welcome to sit with me, but don’t blame me if you get sick!”

After the usual small talk, Nice Guy asked me what I do for a living. Generally speaking, when people find out I’m an “almost’ psychologist and working in the industry already, I get one (or sometimes all) of the following responses:

  • A flash of fear across their face, followed by a withdrawal from conversation
  • The tried and tested joke “can you read my mind/how do you feel about that?” followed by some snide comment about Freud and/or “Shrinks”
  • An unrequested invitation to become this stranger’s new outlet for free counselling

This time however, it was a bit different. Nice Guy was genuinely interested in what a psychologist does, and specifically asked me “why do you want to be a psychologist?”. I was part way into my answer about wanting to help people, when I stopped and asked him “out of all the people waiting here, what made you approach me and ask for help, let alone want to sit with me on a 25-minute ferry ride?”. Nice Guy thought for a while and said, “you just seemed really approachable and actually made eye contact and smiled at me. Everyone else made a point not to engage with me."

It was at this point we returned to small talk, and to the topic of where we went to school. Nice Guy himself had gone to Ignatius Park, and was interested to hear about the work my colleagues and I do with local schools, specifically; building students’ resilience in light of the tragic number of suicides in our community. It was then that this chance encounter became one of the most meaningful conversations of my career so far. Nice Guy opened up to me about his personal experiences with suicide, and how he has coped with losing a number of his mates this way. He openly talked about the stigma he feels as a young man in our community to “suck it up”, and how he is trying to challenge that by talking about his own feelings. For him, he felt a deep sadness that it took the tragic loss of his mates for him to view mental health as something to look after.

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For most of this I sat and listened, in awe of this stranger and his experiences, but mostly feeling grateful that he felt safe enough to share them with me. While we had come from totally different backgrounds and experiences, we were able to connect and relate to each other in such a meaningful way, talking about something that most people don’t even talk about with their most intimate circles. For the week following this encounter, I found myself checking in with those closest to me, particularly my brothers and my partner, to see how they were travelling. Often we assume people know they can come to us with anything they need to talk about, but sometimes it's important to explicitly tell them they can. I myself am even guilty of "not wanting to bother" someone when I am struggling with my mental health, and I work in the mental health sector!

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So, why is mental health important to me?

Now I know many of you will think the answer to the first question is obvious – mental health is important. Full stop. And it is. However, it goes so much deeper than that. Mental health to me isn’t just something we try and “fix” when it gets to an absolute low point. It's about treating it the same way we do physical health – prevention is easier than a cure. Just like physical health, mental health doesn't just stay completely good, or completely bad. It fluctuates depending on how we are looking after it. It's also about developing the self-insight to know when you need to work on your mental health, and feeling safe enough to talk to someone about it when you need to. This could be as simple as knowing when you're overly stressed, and taking the time, even 5 minutes, to do something that helps you feel centred (I.e. go for a walk, call a friend, watch a movie). Alternatively, sometimes there are things that may seem too big, or too overwhelming to deal with yourself, or talk to someone close to you about. That's where mental health professionals come in.

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Why did I choose to go into a profession that seeks to “help” or “improve” mental health?

Like most things I don't have a single answer for this, but to sum it up, I've always wanted to help people, and felt a deep satisfaction watching people thrive in the face of adversity. Growing up I witnessed some of my closest friends battle with a range of mental health issues, from general anxiety, through to trauma, and eating disorders. I always felt fortunate to be the person they trusted most in the world to support them through this when they felt ashamed, or scared to tell anyone else. A few years ago when a childhood friend found out I was studying to be a psychologist, she reminisced on an event from our adolescence... The day that I called her out of the blue to see how she was, calling twice as she didn't answer the first time. The first time she hadn't answered because she was about to attempt suicide. She only answered the second time to say goodbye, but after our conversation she made the decision to live another day, and the next day I helped her find a counsellor. She now has two beautiful kids, and is an incredible advocate for mental health.

This is why I do what I do, and why events like Mental Health Week, Stand With Us, and RUOK Day, are so important! You truly never know when smiling at a stranger, or asking a friend if they are ok, might change their life. Or yours.