World Mental Health Day: Mariska’s story

Stories | October 7, 2021 | Author: Mariska Meldrum, CBM Campaign Manager

When I finished year 12, I had the world at my feet. And then… my world fell apart. I was diagnosed with a mental illness called Bipolar Disorder. A condition I’ve lived with for the past 25 years.

Unlike most other health conditions, my mental health condition felt like something I had to hide, something shameful, something that somehow diminished who I was and what I could hope to be in the future.

And so, I kept it to myself and a close circle of family and friends.

One of my favourite shows is The Good Doctor. There’s a line where the lead character Shaun says, “I want to be known as a ‘good doctor’, not a good autistic doctor.”

That just about sums it up for me.

The reason people like me who live with a mental illness don’t want to come out and tell others about it, is because deep down, we’re scared that the way people see us or treat us will change.

I’ve had a long, successful career in marketing with some of Australia’s leading not-for-profits. But still, every time I start a new job, I struggle to write my condition on the HR form, worried that people’s perception of me will change. I prefer to prove myself, and my abilities, to people first – before I tell them about my health condition.

I pick and choose who I tell because, well, like the Good Doctor said, I want to be known as Mariska, not Bipolar Mariska.

World Mental Health Month in October is an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of access to effective mental health supports and services. And it’s an opportunity to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health conditions.

Australia’s mental health support services aren’t perfect. As an advocate for improving mental health services, and someone with lived experience in accessing those services, I can see the need for changes.

But despite the limitations of our health systems, I can’t imagine the struggle for someone with a mental illness living in one of the world’s poorest places.

In my role with various not-for-profits, I’ve travelled to Nepal, Uganda, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia. I’ve witnessed how difficult it is for people living in poverty to access basic health services – let alone receive the necessary supports and medication for mental health issues.

I was heartbroken to read recently that around three-quarters of people with mental health conditions in low and middle-income countries receive no treatment.

If I hadn’t had access to treatment and preventative medication my life may look a lot different. Thanks to these, I have been able to live life to the full, as a wife, mother and employee.

What first drew me to work at CBM six years ago, was not only that CBM helps people facing the double disadvantage of poverty and disability but that CBM’s goal is to build an inclusive world where people living with mental illness and psychosocial disabilities can achieve their full potential.

One of these people is Desty, a young woman in her mid 20s living in rural Indonesia with a psychosocial disability. CBM has empowered Desty to speak up for and support other people in her community experiencing mental illness.

Like me, Desty has a passion for challenging stereotypes about mental illness. For me, this means being willing to share information about my condition through public speaking or media, and founding an online community called bipolarmums.com. For Desty, it means volunteering with local schools and encouraging members of her community to help others experiencing mental health issues.

Being open about our mental health struggles isn’t easy. It involves being vulnerable and facing possible stigma amongst friends, family or work colleagues. 

But it’s so important that people talk about it. Because in talking about our experiences, we demystify it, and encourage others to speak about their own experiences with mental illness. For too long people have hidden their pain – either through having a mental illness themselves or in caring for a family member.

As a Christian, I believe that God formed me in my mother’s womb with a special purpose for my life. I am here for a reason. And like Desty, I want to use my own struggles to help others.

There is no shame in having a mental illness. It doesn’t define who you are or who you can be. What needs to change is how people with a mental illness are treated and supported.

Mariska is the Campaign Manager for CBM’s Miracles Day. She has led radio broadcast trips to Nepal, Vietnam and the Philippines. Mariska is also the founder of bipolarmums.com and has worked with Monash University and Alfred Hospital as an ambassador for mental health research.

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