As the parent of a young person who has suffered from a mood disorder for many years, I was delighted when I heard that Professor Patrick McGorry (pictured), had been named Australian of the Year for 2010. Whilst taking nothing away from the other nominees, I cannot think of a more deserving winner than Patrick McGorry, a man whose pioneering work was responsible for not only saving my son’s life, but also giving him a future we thought he would never have.
By lobbying the Federal Government to provide funding to establish Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation (headspace), Professor McGorry and his colleagues have changed the lives of tens of thousands of our nation’s youth – among them, my first born son.
Born with a sensitive nature and a genetic predisposition to mood disorders, Aaron had his first anxiety attack in Kindergarten at the tender age of 5. He had three more anxiety attacks during his years at primary school and although I was concerned, I was also suffering from depression at the time and could barely get myself through the day. Left untreated and with a mother who was emotionally unavailable to him, my son’s anxiety and depression only worsened as he got older.
By the time he entered high school at the age of 12, Aaron was having anxiety attacks on a regular basis and being sent home early because the staff didn’t know what else to do with him. This went on for a few months until I was able to scrape up enough money to send Aaron to a small private school in our local area. I thought going to a small private school would make him feel more comfortable. However, by this stage his social phobia had become so entrenched it was going to take much more than a change of scenery to ease his anxiety. So for the next couple of years, Aaron and I hunted all around Sydney for a solution.
He received counselling at a community health centre and was seen by a child psychologist in private practice who formally diagnosed him with social phobia and recommended home schooling (something I could not provide as I had to work to support my two children). I also took him to an anxiety clinic at a university, but they didn’t want to take him on as a client – although they didn’t say as much, I suspected they were more concerned about such a difficult case having an adverse effect on their research results. So with no light at the end of this tunnel, my intelligent and talented son (he is a brilliant artist), dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and for the next four years he stayed home, rarely venturing outside.
After finally receiving treatment for my own mood disorder (I had been suffering from depression since the age of 13), I was able to approach the task of getting help for my son with a renewed sense of vigour. I knew from experience that my son’s future was at stake and always at the back of mind was the fear that he would eventually grow tired of trying and end up as a suicide statistic. So I took it upon myself to act as my son’s advocate and man, did I get frustrated trying to negotiate the welfare system and the health system on my son’s behalf!
Before Patrick McGorry’s pioneering work and the establishment of headspace, the mental health system was set up to handle only the most acute cases (those who were suicidal or psychotic). There was no such thing as early intervention and there were no mental health services for young people. When I was hospitalised for depression in the 1980’s at the age of 14, I was placed in a medical ward and treated like I was a spoiled brat looking for attention. So you can imagine how saddened I was to learn that although twenty years had passed, mental health services for young people hadn’t really improved that much.
Then in 2007 I heard about a new mental health service for young people called headspace. I immediately jumped on the telephone and contacted the mental health service at our local hospital. Of course the person who answered the phone didn’t know what I was talking about – the program was new and there was no headspace centre in our local area as yet. But I was eventually able to convince her to put me through to an intake officer who then scheduled a home visit for my son. A short time later, two people from the Blacktown Early Access Team (now part of headspace) turned up on our doorstep to speak to Aaron. He was immediately given a caseworker – a blue-jeaned angel named Angela, who dressed like a uni student and spoke fluent Gen Y. Although we didn’t know it at the time, over the next two years Angela would work absolute miracles with Aaron.
As one of Aaron’s major barriers was social phobia, initially Angela would come to the house to see him and the two of them would walk to a local park to chat. Over the next few months she gradually helped him to gain enough confidence to make his own way by public transport to the headspace centre when they opened an office in our local area – and for a young man who had rarely left the house in years, this was a tremendous accomplishment.
Angela also referred him to one of the psychiatrists at headspace to review the medication he was taking for depression and to an anxiety class which he did twice because the first time he wasn’t quite ready for group work and missed a few sessions. She also referred him to the Personal Helpers and Mentors Program (PHaMs) at Seven Hills, which provides aftercare for people who are recovering from a mental illness. Aaron’s PHaMs case worker would drop by every week and take him out for a bight to eat and when he needed to go somewhere, the worker would accompany him, until the day came when he no longer needed this type of support and he could travel alone.
Since Angela, headspace and PHaMs came into his life almost three years ago, Aaron has became a confident and much happier young man. In the last 12 months he has attended youth groups at headspace, learned to cook, taken up regular exercise, completed job training and later this week he is going to enrol in a TAFE course. A tremendous accomplishment for a young man who couldn’t even leave the house three years ago and yes, I am very proud of my son.
Aaron is doing really well. I think back to how he was – depression, anxiety attacks, social phobia and the boy who was too withdrawn to speak – and I can’t believe how far he has come in such a relatively short period of time. And we owe it all to visionaries like Professor Patrick McGorry and his colleagues – men and women who worked tirelessly to establish mental health services for young people who would otherwise have fallen through the cracks in our health system.
Headspace is a place that save lives and helps young people to build a brighter future for themselves. If you or someone you know needs help visit the National Youth Mental Health Foundation at www.headspace.org.au