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Deborah Childs: Coming clean about my ‘dirty mental health secret’

As the CEO of an organisation that advocates for mental health carers, I’ve often spoken about the importance of being able to discuss mental health openly, and without fear of judgement or discrimination.

But the truth is, I’ve been clinging to my own “dirty mental health secret” and never spoken publicly about my lived experience of depression and anxiety.

My husband and children know that I’ve experienced the severe lows that anxiety and depression bring and of the struggles I have previously faced, but I’ve never shared them openly, primarily because of the backlash I might face in the workplace and the many questions that might come with it.

My secret is that 20 years ago I needed support and medication, and I kept it all under wraps, until now. I experienced complete and utter despair following a life-threatening trauma which made me question my purpose and led to me overthinking situations. I never spoke of it, as I wanted to ensure I was able to rise through my chosen career and I didn’t want to risk losing my daughter if I wasn’t well enough to care for her properly.

Five years ago, I met Martin Wilson who was directing videos for my organisation, HelpingMinds, with our clients and carers talking about their lived experience. These videos have been incredibly useful in helping people identify themselves on the screen. Martin and the HelpingMinds board have subsequently worked together over the past several years to develop PIECES, a feature film.

PIECES is a very personal project for both me and Martin, whose brother, Daniel, has lived with schizophrenia for 50 years. Daniel’s struggle has had a profound and terrifying, long-lasting effect on Martin’s family. PIECES was made to both honour Daniel’s struggle and continue the work of his father and highlights the extraordinary efforts of mental health carers who are too often the invisible, unheard champions of this complex illness.

The purpose of PIECES is to allow people to see themselves in characters they can relate to on the screen. Recognising someone on the screen like themselves or a family member, allows the viewer to feel they aren’t alone.

HelpingMinds provided a modest budget. COVID-19 provided lockdowns and border closures, but Martin devised a creative strategy to allow the crew to shoot this ensemble drama quickly and professionally. The film is a pseudo-documentary with an improvised approach which allows the audience to believe in and empathise with the characters.

In PIECES we wanted to demystify mental illness and mental health caring. To start a long overdue conversation that debunks the misconceptions and negative stereotypes that complicate and amplify the stigma, discrimination, and isolation people with lived or a living experience of a mental health issue have.

Without sugar-coating the challenges of mental illness, PIECES is ultimately a redemptive and hopeful story. Because, while humanity will never be totally free of suffering, there is beauty and purpose for every single one of us.

Even with one person in five in Australia experiencing a mental health challenge each year, society still dictates mental health be hidden behind closed doors. The risk of sharing your mental health challenges, in relation to health or life insurance, your career, or being unfairly judged or classified by others, is still a fact of life. This is what led to PIECES being created. Encouraging the audience to identify with a character or characteristics within the movie may help us start this conversation.

Being part of the story behind PIECES has enabled me to have the courage to share my experience both as a mental health carer and of my own mental health challenges. It’s my wish that as a society, and as individuals we allow everyone the space, empathy and freedom to talk about their own mental health journeys without the same fears I had 20 years ago.

Deborah Childs is CEO of HelpingMinds. PIECES is screening in Perth, Karratha, Geraldton, Broome, Albany, Busselton and Kalgoorlie during Mental Health Week.

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