R U OK?

Content warning: This article discusses anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder.

Every year, R U OK Day rolls around in September. As someone who has been struggling with anxiety and depression since I was 14, I have very mixed feelings about it. I always feel like I should be more receptive to this day — that, as a society, we’re starting to talk more and more about mental health. That should be a good thing, right?

But, as someone with mental health issues, I’m also wary of it. Organisations get involved, posts are made on social media, events are created using the signature yellow, and, to me, this commercialisation and hype overshadows its original purpose of people seriously and genuinely asking friends one-on-one if they’re ok.

As a society, we’re starting to talk more and more about mental health. That should be a good thing, right?

Organisations and people you barely know casually ask ‘are you ok?’ after handing you a sticker and a cupcake, taking part in the day whilst slightly mocking it, going through hollow motions of asking the same question that is echoed over and over again on posters and t-shirts.

It’s even harder to hear when you haven’t, in fact, been ok. How do you say ‘actually, no, I haven’t been ok’ to that? For me, this year hasn’t been ok.

A few months ago, during a routine visit with my psychologist, I joked that she must hate seeing me because every time I have a session I’m either going really well or really badly.

Her eyes narrowed, and she asked me a few questions: Do you have periods of elevated moods? Do you feel especially lucky during these times? Sleep less? Take a lot of risks? After answering, she told me to visit my GP and review my medication.

I spoke to my GP the next day, and she referred me to a psychiatrist, confirming what I’d suspected my psychologist was diagnosing without saying the words: it was very likely that I have bipolar disorder.

It was five weeks until I was able to see a psychiatrist. Five weeks of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. And questions — so many questions — that were unable to be answered until the appointment:
What would this mean for me?
How would my life change?
Would it change at all?
What plans can I put in place to support this?
Is there a chance this could develop into psychosis?
Would they put me on medication that would turn me into a zombie in my graduating semester?
How open should I be about it?
How would I disclose this to future friends and boyfriends?
If this is disclosed professionally, would it hurt my future career prospects?
And, for me, the scariest thought — what if there is no diagnosis, and this is just how I am?

And questions — so many questions

This period was the most anxious and depressed that I’ve ever been. I was constantly on the brink of tears and a panic attack. I lost all motivation for everything, spending days on end in bed. I couldn’t keep up with both internal and external motivations and often felt like I was letting people down. I had to put Orenda on hold for a bit, but with a new issue release scheduled, I had a lot of people asking what was happening. Obviously, there a deeply personal reason that I wasn’t yet ready to disclose, and it was hard to explain why nothing was happening, which added extra pressure and was yet another way I felt I was letting people down.

After five weeks of this, I finally saw a psychiatrist who, after a long conversation outlining my medical and personal history, confirmed that yes, I do have bipolar disorder. This was a weird conversation. He diagnosed it as bipolar disorder, then, I presume in an effort to not scare me, went on to say that as this wasn’t “stereotypical bipolar disorder”, he’d refer to it as a “mood disorder”. Yeah, because being a young woman with a “mood disorder” would be SO much less stigmatised. He gave me a worksheet with a mood tracker on it, and physically covered up the words ‘Bipolar Disorder’ with his hand, once again not to scare me. But I wasn’t scared. Being diagnosed meant this was manageable — it was defined, with proven treatment methods and medications.

Yeah, because being a young woman with a “mood disorder” would be SO much less stigmatised.

Four months on, things have improved. A lot of my questions have been answered: having bipolar disorder means more medication and appointments, but now that it’s managed, my life is largely the same. Making the decision to study part-time has really helped and I should’ve done it a while ago. It’s extremely unlikely this will develop into psychosis for me. The medication made me tired at the start, but I feel a lot better now. The depression is reduced — it’s still there — but the meds help. It’s important to me that I’m open about it, and I don’t owe details, but it’s important to talk about these things. I disclose it by talking about it openly, and if they’re not ok with that then fuck them. So far, it hasn’t affected my career — in fact, I’ve spoken about mental health in multiple talks now, and people have responded well. And, diagnosis or no diagnosis, this is how I am — this is a part of me, and that’s ok.

This is a part of me, and that’s ok.

Since being diagnosed, I’ve been especially aware of our society’s reaction to mental health, and initiatives such as R U OK Day. We’ve made great strides, and I’m optimistic about the future acceptance and understanding of mental health as a whole. But at the moment, mental health is often specified as ‘anxiety, depression, et cetera’ — certain conditions are more palatable, whilst the other, ‘scarier’ conditions are still stigmatised and left unspoken about. After that initial conversation with my psychologist, I realised that (to my knowledge) I didn’t know anyone with bipolar disorder. I’ve since told people that I have bipolar disorder, and I’ve often been met with very concerned, worried responses - as if I’d just told them I’m dying. Honestly, it doesn’t affect me any more than my pre-existing anxiety and depression did. I still have to buy medication, go to appointments and make sure I’m looking after myself.

Mental health is often specified as ‘anxiety, depression, et cetera’

In saying that, I recognise that I’m incredibly lucky and privileged. Between my psychiatrist appointments, psychologist appointments and medication (some of which isn’t covered under the PBS), my bipolar disorder costs upward of $450 a month. I’m so lucky and privileged and grateful that I have an amazing support system, and that my parents emotionally and financially support it — in their words, “just like [they] would any other illness”. I’m lucky that my mental illness is manageable, and responds well to medication, and that I have a great support system — both personally and professionally — that doesn’t stigmatise my mental health. I recognise that others aren’t so lucky and that they shouldn’t have to suffer as a result. We still have a long way to go in our medical support of mental health and having full access to mental health services shouldn’t be only for those who can afford it.

If you or someone you know needs support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit its website.