Mental health issues affect all of our lives in some form or other. The likelihood is that each day you come into contact with work colleagues, family members and friends who are finding it hard to cope.
Research, medication and support are far more sophisticated than they were a mere 20 years ago and dealing with issues such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders etc are no longer a sentence to continued struggles in life. Consider how many highly successful household names have dealt with serious mental health issues, Winston Churchill, John Laws, Stephen Fry, Francis Ford Coppola, Buzz Aldrin, Angelina Jolie…the list goes on.
What engenders real hope are the inspiring success stories of individuals who have overcome all types of mental health issues and forged a positive and happy future in their lives. Mary Jo Fisher, former Senator for South Australia is one such individual and she has kindly agreed for us to share her story.
Having endured a very public battle with bi polar disorder she has continued to build a solid career in workplace relations and service to the community and is now a Beyond Blue Ambassador.
“Given that my self-implosion was rather public, why not make use of it to benefit others?”
After five years in the Senate, Ms Fisher resigned in 2012 following her involvement in a widely publicised shoplifting incident, which she acknowledges took place during a period of great and prolonged mental distress. She told Parliament on her last day: ”Of course I carry deep sorrow that my now infamous depression has taken me to a point where I can no longer ask the community to continue to support me in the Senate … Perhaps my biggest regret is that I didn’t succeed in showing others that there is a way to manage this illness whilst continuing in your favourite job.”
Ms Fisher was initially diagnosed with chronic depression in 2009. After leaving the Senate, she was finally diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. “I had a label at last. It’s not a label anyone wants, but I felt ecstatic and empowered. I could now work out how to manage what I had.” Looking back, Ms Fisher says she has always struggled with waking up in the mornings and had used exercise as a way to feel better and start her day. “I was not motivated to get out of bed; I felt physically nauseous every morning; feeling numb/dead inside, yet with my stomach constantly churning.” Ms Fisher said she was disinterested in everything and enjoyed nothing; she felt like nothing mattered anymore. “There was constant self-doubt and self-criticism; I never felt good enough, never did well enough and didn’t deserve the job I had or the respect people gave me.”
Mary Jo was prompted to seek help when one day in 2008, she couldn’t pack her suitcase to go to Canberra. “I’d done it hundreds of times before… but I just couldn’t get myself to put anything in it. My husband did it for me so I made my flight.” Around the same time, her husband John sent a letter to her in Canberra, telling her she had to seek help. Still Ms Fisher delayed getting help because she didn’t think she needed it, and when she eventually realised she did need help, it made her feel weak and pathetic. On top of that, she was also concerned about having a public profile and an obligation to continue representing the people of South Australia.
Now, Ms Fisher readily encourages people to seek help early: “It can happen to you. Don’t deny it, if you think it could be happening to you. Get help.” “Help is always available – even if you think ‘you’ve mucked things up’. The earlier you get help, the better.” “Depression is a health issue, not a weakness. Seeing a medical practitioner (even regularly) and taking medication doesn’t mean you’re ‘weak’. “If you need a psychiatrist, find one who works for you. Their being competent is not enough. I needed one who could tell me what to do – and he does.”
Her advice addresses the ripple effect depression can have on all aspects of a person’s life. “Deal with your issue before it can threaten your family, your finances, your career, and so that you won’t risk breaking the law.” Ms Fisher said that people may find that some others treat you differently at first – because they are concerned for you and don’t really understand what is going on. “If you can, find someone you can trust to ‘lean on’ and be a ‘weather vane’ for your conduct. “I’m so lucky to have my husband as my ‘weather-vane’!
“My job as a Senator didn’t cause any of my illness, but it (and a couple of other external issues) meant I couldn’t get space to learn how to manage it. “I’ve kicked my career for six, but I’ve got my personality back. Mornings are still hard, and I think I’ll always feel nauseous until I’ve kick-started the day with exercise. But I look forward to and enjoy things – and feel as if I can help people again.”
Click here to watch Mary-Jo’s video story.
Or to read more stories like this, please visit the Beyond Blue personal stories page.