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By John McGrath
Chair, Mental Health Council of Australia

Hello, my name is John, and I am a family carer with a family member who has a mental illness. Life was seemingly normal in our home (whatever "normal" means,) until the early 80s when our second son, Shane, in his mid-teens started displaying changing behaviour patterns. At first we thought this was adolescence. He had always being spirited and mischievous as a child and we put it down to his personality that he was different from his elder brother.

However, within a few months it became obvious that Shane was experiencing something far more serious than adolescence when he made a serious suicide attempt. He ended up in intensive care in hospital. During his stay in recovery a young psychiatrist suggested that Shane had a mental illness, and although he was reluctant to put a diagnosis on it at the time he encouraged us to seek a further opinion.

We went back home to Warrnambool and Shane came with us, but soon needed to be hospitalised in the psychiatric hospital. During this time the superintendent psychiatrist took the family through an education program which was attended by approximately 20 people, all of whom were in similar circumstances to ourselves.

This exercise was to change our lives and the way we thought about mental illness. I guess we were confronted by the stigma and identified the cloak of secrecy that families feel forced to shelter under because of widespread community misunderstanding and lack of appropriate and balanced education on the issue.

Shane was having some very difficult times and when he went on his roller coaster ride the family was just swept along and many times chaos reigned supreme.

He started to lose employment opportunities because his capacity to concentrate was diminished and whilst he could recover for some time the episodic nature of his illness meant that he lived through peaks and troughs.

As I was balancing the roles of parent and a position demanding a high profile in public life I was having great difficulty being able to provide any valuable support for him. As a parent I wanted to able to fix this "thing" for him, and I couldn't. As a figure in public life, I was aware that people in the know were watching me to see how I handled this "thing", and whether it would affect my commitment to my work responsibilities.

At about this time our eldest son, Darren, was also diagnosed with a mental illness. Naturally this further complicated life within our home, and caused emotional upheavals. By this time Shane had a very good understanding of his illness and had started to speak out about issues affecting people with mental illnesses. He spoke to educational institutions, the media, - radio, press and TV, and was effective in starting to shift public opinion.

As a family we were unified by Shane's courage and so after a family conference we unanimously agreed that as a family we would lift the cloak of secrecy and speak publicly about mental illness and how it effected us all, as a family. This was a significant decision for all the family; firstly for Darren and Shane, as they were the ones directly affected, secondly for our three daughters, because they also lived in the same country centre, and also for me, being the State MP representing that area for many years.

It is a difficult decision for any individual or family to make about speaking out, and for some it might well be impossible. But I need to emphasise, if we are going to achieve a situation where people with a health problem get treated equally and adequately, whether that problem is physical or mental, then we need to educate service providers as well as the wider community that mental health services need to reach acceptable standards. There are valuable lessons to be learned from the "lived experiences" of consumers (patients) and carers.

Today I have retired from State Parliament to spend some of my hopefully healthy and productive retirement years working voluntarily in the field of mental health, in the hope and expectation of "making a difference".

My story is similar in theme to many others, but some of the details will vary.

In my case, my son, Shane, made a decision to end his life on 16th April 1993 at just 28 years of age, succeeding in his fifth suicide attempt. Fortunately today there are more options available for people like Shane to achieve a reasonable quality of life.

His brother, Darren, is on new medication and today lives a rewarding life. He has returned to work, lives independently, and whilst he does have his bad days, he enjoys life to the maximum and still retains a wicked sense of humour.

So I am inspired by the life experience of my two sons and the thousands of courageous people I have met who deal with their particular mental illness on a daily basis.

In closing, can I encourage those who access this internet site seeking support to reach out and speak to someone, because you are not alone. There are many many people in the community who will accept, encourage and help you to achieve your goals.

Remember, "anything is possible".

Understandingly yours,

- November 2000 -


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