Our mental health crisis

Waiting for the train wreck

NOWHERE TO TURN: A Ballarat mother talks about the devastation of trying to help her mentally ill son but finding nowhere to turn. Note: this is a generic image.

NOWHERE TO TURN: A Ballarat mother talks about the devastation of trying to help her mentally ill son but finding nowhere to turn. Note: this is a generic image.

Anne* feels like she is watching a train wreck about to happen. But – despite knowing the outcome will be devastating – can’t find the help she desperately needs to stop it.

Anne’s 21-year-old son has mental health issues, including self-harm and suicide attempts. However, he refuses to acknowledge just how far down he is falling.

He has resisted any attempts to be admitted to a psychiatric ward and now believes his family are scheming against him.

“We’re much better at awareness of mental health issues but, when people are actually in crisis, we’re failing them,” Anne said.

“I wish there were other options available to him but it’s a closed door until he admits he needs help. I’m just waiting for a train wreck. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get him help. We’re beside ourselves with worry. People think it will all be fixed if you get help but it’s not as simple as that.”

When Anne’s son was five, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and struggled socially through primary school.

He came out as bisexual in year nine and “copped a lot of flak for that”.

When his friends started drinking, he didn’t like the effect it had on him and turned to marijuana instead. This eventually led to an ice binge that caused his mental health to deteriorate dramatically.

He was diagnosed with depression at 18 and, later on, borderline personality disorder. 

However, he felt counselling either didn’t help him or counsellors left for other positions just as he was getting comfortable with them.

Four months ago, he left Ballarat and began living rough in Melbourne, running away from family members if they approached him and refusing to answer his phone.

“We’d get calls from the police in the middle of the night to come and collect him. We did that several times.”

Anne contacted counselling lines and organisations but the main advice she constantly heard was to have the police have him committed.

“But they would dismiss him as having a drug problem. But it’s like a roller coaster we were on. Drug and alcohol services would say it’s a mental health issue and mental health services would say it was the drugs.”

Several times they took him to the emergency department either with a drug overdose or knowing he was about to go on a binge. “They would always release him and say it was a drug problem.”

However, he kept refusing to be admitted to a psychiatric ward.

“But he wasn’t in a sound enough mind to know he needed help. It’s almost neglect now.”

Her son is living with family members and still refusing any mental health treatment, including anti-depressants. 

Anne said she was horrified to discover the help she thought would be readily available wasn’t there for her son.

“I’m worried about his future. He’s isolated from his friends now too.

“It’s not like I have the answers. I just expected there to be more help at such a critical time.”

"Only intervening when they have hurt themselves or someone else is preposterous. There is nothing more important than the preservation of precious lives." - Anne

Anne said she felt there needed to be legislative change for when people refuse to either acknowledge or seek help for their mental health issues, which is putting them at risk.

She said people with dementia aren’t expected to have the capacity to make important decisions about their treatment yet mentally unwell people can still have total control over theirs.

“The rights of the individual are critically important but the safety of their own and others well being must be considered also. Unfortunately in our current system, freedom of the individual can sometimes result in neglect. 

“Only intervening when they have hurt themselves or someone else is preposterous. There is nothing more important than the preservation of precious lives.

“We need some sort of collaborative fallback system. For example, if an individual has been picked up by the police three times or presented at emergency services for self harm, they must be assessed.”

Anne said family members also have no input into treatment after a person turns 18. “When my son was delusional, he was expected to call ACSO, which is the entry point to mental health services, and be his own advocate. The insight and background information I had about my own son accounted for little. He never made that call.”

Anne also said accessing mental health services felt like being kept in a constant holding pattern.

“Upon contacting one service, we would be referred to another in a continual exhausting cycle. The waiting list for rehabilitation services in Melbourne was over six months and, even then, my son had to willingly enter it, if he was lucky enough to eventually receive a place.

“We just needed my son’s issues to be deal with holistically. Many people with drug addictions have underlying mental health problems. At such a vulnerable time, they do not need to be shunted between services and left waiting for months for appointments.”

She also called for more mental health funding.

​“It is families who are carrying the burden of the inadequacies of our mental health system. If their loved one commits suicide, they not only are left with the worst kind of grief but guilt about what they might have done to prevent it despite their best efforts. The guilt should not be theirs to bear.”

*Anne’s name has been changed

Rozie’s mental health plea

Maryborough’s Rozie Batty has dialled enough telephone help lines to “make my own telephone directory”.

But no-one could give her and her violent, mentally ill son the help they needed – even after he physically attacked her and tried to burn down their home.

“This is the face of mental health. This is what drugs are doing to people,” Ms Batty said.

“When are they going to lock him up – when he kills me or kills his brother? I’m not saying woe is me. I tried to help my child and I failed. Did I deserve what happened to me? No, I did not. Now I’m asking – is there anyone in Australia that can help me?”

Twelve months ago, the 66-year-old mother of three let her 49-year-old son return to the family home from Queensland, despite years of mental health problems and an addiction to a wide range of pain killers.

After he refused to see a counsellor, Ms Batty tried to get him into a psychiatrist but the earliest appointment was in February.

He began assaulting his mother, who would call the police but they would just tell her to call the helplines.

She is on the Central Goldfields Shire Say No to Violence committee.

“There are 21 people on that board from various walks of life. I’ve been there for two years and all they do is talk, talk, talk, there is no action. The reason – no funds.”

After his final assault and arson attempt, Ms Batty now has an intervention order out against her son but he breaches it on a daily basis by writing her and his brother letters.

When are they going to lock him up – when he kills me or kills his brother? I’m not saying woe is me. I tried to help my child and I failed. Did I deserve what happened to me? No, I did not. Now I’m asking – is there anyone in Australia that can help me? - Rozie Batty

While he was in Queensland, her son was diagnosed with six or seven different mental illnesses, including manic depression, bipolar and psychosis, by different doctors. For every illness, he was given a new medication.

But Ms Batty said she felt her son most likely had schizophrenia due to his erratic behaviour.

When he was 18, her son bought his first car and drove off. She didn’t see him again until he was 25, when he first attacked her. The next time she saw him was 2004 and then not again until last year.

Ms Batty said she had three major concerns: doctors don’t have enough time to properly assess patients; doctor shopping is allowed; and police do not have the power to lock up mentally ill people, even if they have assaulted someone.

Ms Batty, who shares her name with another famous campaigner, said she was determined to put her name and face out in the public in the hope of effecting change.

“It is painful, it is gut wrenching but I’m not ashamed. I’m not excusing it but my son is mentally ill. 

“If putting myself out there is going to be bring less suffering, then something is good.”

Conversations can reduce stigma

Dr Mark Cross

Dr Mark Cross

People with mental illness experience substance abuse at far higher rates than the general public, according to national mental health charity SANE Australia.

SANE Australia board director and psychiatrist Dr Mark Cross said having a mental illness can make a person more likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol to make their symptoms feel better in the short-term.

“They essentially self-medicate,” Dr Cross said.

However, Dr Cross said using drugs can often make the symptoms of mental illness worse.

“The key to reducing the link between mental illness and drug use is seeking the right support and not ignoring the symptoms.

“We have to work on a narrative of healing together, including lifestyle changes and being open to getting help.

“Conversations help reduce stigma and they help carers as well.”

But, unfortunately, about 65 per cent of people with symptoms of a mental illness don’t seek help, with men far worse than women.

Clinical psychotherapist and counsellor Stuart Fenton of Beyond Addiction said dealing with addictions and mental illness was a tricky situation.

“The majority of kids are willing to go to a professional but I also know there are quite a few who don’t want to,” Mr Fenton said.

He said the best thing parents can do is share how the mental illness is impacting on them and how they are feeling.

“It can help speed up their awareness.”

  • For 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Other services include Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467, Beyondblue: 1300 22 4636, Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800, MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978