The teens and early twenties are the most common time for the onset of mental illness, and Jenny Smith was no exception. The Sydney local first began to experience signs of depression and anxiety when she had to change schools at the end of year 10.
“I had to start again at a public school, it was very difficult. I was the new kid, I found it hard to make friends, adapt to a new timetable and new rules and new surroundings that I wasn’t used to,” Jenny explains.
Things at home were unravelling as well.
“I noticed over many years that Dad’s behaviour was changing, after he lost both his job and his mother to cancer. He was talking to himself, playing music very loud, staring a lot, pacing up and down the hallway and was verbally abusive towards me and the rest of the family. He was very hard to live with. I knew something was wrong.”
Jenny’s father went on to experience episodes of psychosis. He had episodic contact with treatment services, and periodic use of ant-psychotic medication, but remained unwell.
Both Jenny and her sister were struggling to cope.
“It was during this time I started to develop what I thought were stress-related symptoms - shaking hands, rapid heartbeat, insomnia and an upset stomach,” Jenny says.
Later, Jenny’s struggle to complete a much-wanted teaching qualification was another blow to her mental health.
“My best wasn`t good enough… so I left [the university] at the end of the year. After that my own mental health took a turn for the worst. I became very depressed and I did not seem to be coping with life. I lost confidence in myself and my abilities.”
She turned to her GP, who was “very supportive”.
“I wish I had gone and spoken to my GP earlier than what I did,” Jenny says.
The GP prescribed Jenny antidepressants and she also had some counselling. Jenny continues to take medication today and rates her mental health now as “great”. Her positive relationship with her mum and sister is another crucial support.
With a desire to help others who live with mental illness, including her sister, Jenny took it upon herself in 2015 to get involved in consumer advocacy. She has completed a Mental Health First Aid Certificate, is a Consumer Mental Health Educator with the Schizophrenia Fellowship of NSW, and a Consumer Mental Health Advisor with the Sydney Local Health District.
Of the latter role, Jenny says the work is quite varied.
“Some of us are on committees, we give feedback on different projects, and participate in training. At the moment we are reviewing brochures that are given to clients to make them more user friendly.”
Jenny says her experience has taught her a lot about herself.
“I think to survive a mental illness you need courage, resilience and perseverance as well as a good support network.
“Having a mental illness is only one part of me. I should be recognised and acknowledged and treated as an equal, just like everyone else in the community.”
Note: The photo accompanying this story is not of Jenny Smith.