Using social change thinking to transform how we think and act about mental illness
This blog was delivered as a speech to the Matilda Centre at the University of Sydney on 31 March 2022.
When I was 19 years old in the second year of my law degree, I had a severe psychosis. It came on during the annual National Union of Students Conference — a gathering of the student movement. On return I was rushed to the psychiatric ward at Hornsby Hospital. I stayed there for 2 months.
I was a middle class kid. I’d grown up in a progressive family and I had been schooled in questions of justice by my grandmother, who had grown up in England during the Depression and World War Two.
My time in hospital was riddled with contradictions. It was traumatic. I am still haunted by some of the aggressive interactions I had with security staff, and the fear I felt being followed down hospital corridors by an older male patient. I was presented with a bleak future too; the doctors told my parents I would never recover.
But there was also beauty. In the acute ward — days after arriving — I met a nurse who looked like Mike Carlton, who (for the non-Australian and/or young people in the audience), was a high profile radio presenter. In my manic state, I assumed that “Mike Carlton” was there to talk to me. I talked with him for days. Never did Jeff Green — the name of the nurse — ever bother to correct me. He just made me feel safe.
Even before I went to hospital I had begun to doubt if I wanted to be a lawyer. But as I slowly recovered, over months and years, I was convinced that I wanted something else. Crisis and recovery produced a metamorphosis. Since that time — 24 years ago — I have pursued social change as my vocation.
Even so it took me decades to see the connection between my lived experience of mental illness and my skills as a change maker.
Initially — they seemed incompatible. As I recovered, political battles turned into character assassinations over the state of my brain.
Two years after hospital when I was editing the student newspaper I had a fight with a teammate. The way he argued back was to tell everyone I hadn’t taken my medication.