Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.
We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.
Mitch Wallis, 27, is a mental health advocate and the founder of the Heart on My Sleeve Movement. He's suffered from anxiety and depression since he was 7 years old. Today, on World Mental Health Day, Mitch is sharing his story.
On the outside my life was perfect. On the inside, it was just an absolute mess, and unfortunately for longer than I'd like to remember.
I grew up in Mosman, Sydney, with an amazing family. I got 97-point-something in my UAI, I had a great group of friends, and I was going out and partying a lot. I went to Sydney Uni, I got my Bachelor of Commerce and I became the youngest intern at Microsoft in Australia. I worked my way up, landed on the high talent programme, got offered a role over in Seattle and moved there over three years ago, before becoming the global product marketing manager for Microsoft Surface. I was driving a Porsche Cayman and had a six-figure salary by the time I was 24.
All areas of my life seemed great, but internally I was a mess.
By the time I was 7 years old I'd experienced my first symptoms of what I now know to be anxiety and depression. I was predisposed genetically, so I always knew I was going to get something. My parents got divorced when I was young and I went through some emotional abuse — those things brought about a perfect storm that led to me developing acute OCD at 9 years old.
My mum would come into my room and notice me touching the light switch 50 times and refolding my clothes a hundred times. Sometimes it would take me an hour just to leave my bedroom because I had to perform so many rituals. My mum would say, "What are you doing?" And I would say, "I don't know, I just feel like sh*t all the time," or, "I just feel guilty all the time." I'd do these things to make me feel better. I don't know why.
We went to the doctor, but nothing was done, really. I got told that it looked like the early onset of an anxiety disorder and that there was no treatment. We got told to relax.
At the time I remember seeing how upset my mum was — not at what I was doing, but that she didn't know how to help. I thought, "Well, whatever I'm doing isn't productive — I need to stop," so I managed to get on top of the OCD, but the depression and general anxiety lingered all through high school. I would go from having a big weekend at a party, acting fine, and then for days I would be in my bedroom just melting down, no one being any the wiser.
It got worse and worse over the years but I got the job at Microsoft and everything was going well, so I was like, "Well, I'm just going to keep Band-Aiding my way through," and that's what I did. I researched a bunch of anxiety and depression tools because I thought, "The doctor didn't help me last time, so I'm going to have to do this on my own." It was just enough to get me over to the US and building this career.
It wasn't until last year when I had another "perfect storm." I loved what I was doing at work, but I didn't feel like it was really satisfying my calling in life. I'd been accepted at Columbia University in New York, to do my Masters of Clinical Psychology, so I took a few weeks off from work and went over. When I started the degree, work started to ramp up and I started going into a downward spiral with my depression — it got worse than ever and I couldn't control it.
I went to a psychologist and I remember telling him, "I'm ready to get on top of this." His response was like, "Well, you've got a range of these disorders . . ." and I remember thinking, "Wow, I'm actually more of a mess than I thought." That fuelled my depression and anxiety even more and it happened again and again. I would go to a psychologist who I couldn't connect with and they'd re-diagnose me. I felt like I was broken beyond repair. One night I came home — I'd just seen another psychologist who made it worse — and I thought, "I'm not going to get through this."
Then, a miracle happened. I stumbled upon this video on YouTube of a 27-year-old dude, sitting in his room somewhere in the middle of America, and he'd recorded himself telling his story and what he'd been through. His story was almost identical to mine, to the point where I actually thought it was a targeted ad. That day, everything changed because I was like, "Whoa. This is what it feels like to be understood." In that moment, I realised that a lot of the pain that I feel, and a lot of pain that everyone feels, isn't just one problem. It's not the anxiety, it's not the depression, it's all the things that we attach to that: All the shoulds and the shouldn'ts, the perceptions from yourself and others. I let all that go away and I allowed myself to just be whatever I was. I thought, "I'm not alone. I'm not abnormal if this guy's going through it too."
An incredible sense of relief and hope dawned on me, but I can't say that life just changed in an instant. I did finally come across a therapist that I connected with and it absolutely changed my life because she gave me the ability to just be me. I think the biggest thing was finding someone with whom I truly didn't feel judged. I still have weekly therapy with her but I would say that the moment I saw the video with that guy was absolutely the inflexion point of my life.
That video saved my life, but it doesn't mean that things got easier, just that they got more real. I broke and I broke and I broke, even after that point, but I had an inner knowledge that I was going to be okay. That was the difference.
Therapy brings up so much sh*t and sometimes you're like, "Whoa. I don't know if I can carry this." You have to allow other people to carry parts of it until you can hold it on your own. The ability to accept myself for who I was, like that guy did on that YouTube video, allowed me to be me. Mix that with asking for help and letting people carry parts of you and they're the two things that I now tell everyone.
Even though mental health awareness is rising, there's still a huge stigma around it. I don't think everyone is talking. We're told it's okay to speak out, but very few actually are. A lot of people are waiting to be asked if they're okay, because that's how we're taught to do it — and although that's really important and definitely one half of it, the other half is leading by example and sharing our story when we think it's going to be helpful for ourselves or for other people to hear.
I don't believe in recovery or a cure; there is no such thing. It's a continual journey and I take every day as it comes, but now I'm absolutely living a life of meaning and having more good days than bad.
If you aren't feeling great and you need to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.