Breaking the stigma of mental illness
All images used with permission.
When Suzanna Free returned to university at the age of 70, her mature-age status wasn’t her primary concern.
The 74-year-old former registered nurse has bipolar disorder, a mental illness associated with extreme mood shifts that for Suzanna were triggered by a succession of trauma.
Initially traumatised by family members who were substance abusers, Suzanna then developed post-partum depression at 27 following the birth of her son, although the illness was left untreated and undiagnosed.
“That actually tipped over into a thing called a puerperal psychosis, which is psychosis associated with the hormones of childbirth,” Suzanna said.
Although a rare event, postpartum psychosis has been linked to other forms of mental illness.
For Suzanna, it led to having bipolar disorder.
“I told both my mother and my doctor at the time, I’d told them I’d never been closer to a nervous breakdown in my life – and they both laughed at me,” Suzanna said. “It took me becoming extremely bipolar and being admitted to hospital for them to actually take me seriously.”
Suzanna has regular nervous breakdowns. The most recent left her “very, very ill”.
“It came to the point where I couldn’t even trust my own thoughts,” Suzanna said.
As a form of personal therapy, and to regain her confidence, Suzanna signed up for a creative writing course offered by a local community organisation in Brisbane. There she learnt about Clemente Australia, a free and fully supported university course in the humanities offered by Australian Catholic University (ACU) for people who would otherwise be excluded from tertiary education opportunities.
Clemente Australia students are often impacted by complex social issues, such as disability, addiction, unemployment, homelessness, family breakdown, or like Suzanna, severe mental illness.
Students study four units in humanities to obtain a Certificate in Liberal Studies, which can be credited towards an undergraduate degree. For Suzanna, the decision to return to university was a step in the right direction.
“Clemente does an excellent job of giving us back our voice, to be able to stand up and be counted,” Suzanna said.
During her studies at ACU’s Brisbane Campus, Suzanna met another former nurse, 46-year-old Risa Rosello, who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 1999.
Born in the Philippines, Risa lived through the tumultuous Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, as well as the disastrous 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt Pinatubo. The traumatic events led to her mental health diagnosis while working as a nurse.
“I remember listening into an auditorium, and there was a man who talked about Schizophrenia, and I’m thinking, ‘That would have been a difficult journey for him’,” Risa said.
“I ended up with it a few years later, as a student nurse and a nurse.”
Despite her diagnosis, Risa could still work, eventually becoming a kindergarten teacher and then a disability support worker.
“But it was debilitating,” Risa said.
Risa has mental health episodes where she hears and sees things that are not there – at one point, a voice told her to jump off a second storey building.
“I ended up on a few trees and then over the fence,” Risa said. “God was helping and protecting me at that time.”
And it wasn’t the only time God intervened in Risa’s life.
“When I was at Clemente I was unemployed and I didn’t want to live anymore,” Risa said. “I needed something to get up and have a shower for.
“Clemente gave me light, because I was in darkness at that time.”
At Clemente, Risa met Suzanna, and along with several other Clemente students, realised a significant gap in mental health education.
“We became aware that there was a need for people to get out there and speak to the people who are the friends and neighbours of the people who are suffering the lived experience of mental health issues,” Suzanna said.
The result is Blue Phoenix, a voluntary group that advocates for thinking differently about mental health issues. Blue Phoenix members, all of whom are living with a mental illness, offer presentations and speaking engagements, sharing their personal stories courageously to encourage dialogue and dispel myths regarding mental or psychiatric conditions.
“Because for the most part, people still think that those with mental health issues are weak or they’re untrustworthy or they’re unreliable or they’re dangerous,” Suzanna said.
“It was a question of finding people who were on the same page and being able to flow in the same direction.”
Late last year, the Blue Phoenix group met with Ivan Frkovic, the Queensland Mental Health Commissioner, to ask for support for one of their key projects, a Sunflower Quilt adorned with inspirational phrases about mental health.
While their hands are busy with this new project, the Clemente journey is not over for Suzanna and Risa.
The pair volunteer as learning partners, supporting new students through to their graduation day, which for many, can be years in the making.
Both Risa and Suzanna went through the learning partner training with the St Vincent de Paul, a partner of the Brisbane Clemente program, along with Micah Services and Sisters of Mercy.
Clemente Australia program advisor for ACU’s Brisbane Campus, Janine Quine, said past Clemente students provided critical support and understanding to students who also suffer from mental health issues.
“Having our former students there to be someone who our current students can relate to, that is important, because you’ve got to have the community there, otherwise it is just study and nothing else,” Quine said.
Discover more about Blue Phoenix, or book Risa, Suzanna or another volunteer as a speaker. If you or someone you know is struggling with crisis or mental illness, contact Lifeline.
Learn more about Clemente Australia at ACU.