When Bianca was just out of her teens, life got very hard.
She’d had her first child at 19, and found herself isolated in an increasingly abusive and violent relationship. There was gaslighting – a constant stream of suggestions that she was worthless, stupid and hopeless. She had few people to whom she could turn and fewer options.
And there was a growing sense that something was really wrong, beyond even her stressful situation.
That’s how she found herself living out of a car with a nine-month-old baby, and a little later, with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
October is Mental Health Month and Bianca’s story will be familiar to many who have been touched in some way by mental health issues. Region Media is proud to be a partner for Mental Health Month and to tell stories like Bianca’s.
“It took some courage to know it wasn’t right, that this isn’t what life is supposed to be,” she says reflectively. “Living out of a car was difficult and scary, but better than living in that relationship.”
The bipolar diagnosis, when it came, was a relief too. What was presumed to be postnatal depression and relationship stress was something more pervasive but also manageable.
“I was about 22 and the assessment concluded I’d probably been living with an undiagnosed mental illness since I was 17,” she says.
“For the first time, I was correctly medicated, and that stabilised me and helped me to move forwards.”
Although Bianca isn’t currently medicated, she says that without correct care she would never have been able to re-orient her life and get it back on track. There was a ‘lightbulb moment’ when she accessed help from a women’s refuge who offered her simple, person-centred care – not so much ‘what’s wrong with you?’ as ‘what help do you need to improve your life?’
Advocacy has also been an important step on her journey towards resilience and greater confidence. She’s spent time at the ACT’s Recovery College learning strategies for developing confidence, control and effective well-being and illness self-management tools.
She now applies that to advocacy work in the sector.
“Advocacy came about because my journey wasn’t smooth sailing. There’s a gap in policy and implementation, and I realised that we can often help to bridge that with consumer representation, so I wanted to step up”, she says.
Bianca is now a director for an ACT Mental Health Network and has taken up several leadership training opportunities. She says this is a time of reform and change in the sector.
“Awareness is growing in the community but the culture shift will take time,” she says. “We have RUOK day, World Mental Health Day, Headspace and Beyond Blue all out there.
“The understanding that one-in-four Australians have mental health issues is more accepted, but actually implementing changes is still a barrier.
“What if you ask someone if they’re OK and they say ‘no’? What then? We need to build the next steps.”
Her own experience in Canberra’s mental health system was mixed. Bianca says she experienced multiple knockbacks and rejections “until I did some stupid things to draw attention to how badly I needed help”.
She thinks plenty of Canberrans are in the same boat.
“You try to get help before you get to the extreme but nobody is listening at that stage,” she says.
Developments like the peer worker program and the Safe Haven cafes, where people can seek specific mental health assistance, are positives.
Bianca says that the unpredictable pandemic has been tough for people like her who struggle with anxiety, but there’s been a reassuring growth in awareness of mental health issues.
“Things can improve and have improved from the past,” she says.
“We need to keep the ball rolling. COVID has caused a mental health awareness boost because we realised the importance of NGOs out there uniting and acting on the need to get into the community.”
More than 30 events will be held throughout October, ranging from a webinar on navigating teen mental health issues to walks for mental health, a breathing club, and caring for carers.