ANXIETY Disorders Week, which commenced on Wednesday, 4 August, aims to raise awareness of these debilitating conditions and learn from people who suffer how best to offer help, support, and treatment.
Lyn English is a long-time health and mental health consumer consultant.
In 2020, she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for years of service to groups like the Mental Health Coalition of South Australia, having contributed as a board member since 2004.
Lyn’s decades of selfless dedication to the cause of high-quality, dignified mental healthcare make her a living national treasure.
But what sets her apart is her bravery and openness in talking about her own lived experiences of panic, anxiety and depressive disorders.
It has been a difficult life journey at times for Lyn.
Still, the light at the end of the tunnel has been that AM: an honour she said she is personally very proud of after a lifetime of being mistreated because of her conditions.
“Anxiety is ultimately about fear, but you don’t realise it is; it’s not necessarily logical,” Lyn said.
She runs through some common symptoms of anxiety disorders which differ in their intensity and frequency from everyday nerves in situations like stage fright, public speaking or attending job interviews.
They range from a racing heart, the shakes, dizziness, cold and clammy hands, a fight or flight instinct, lack of safety, loss of control and catastrophic thinking.
Even stomach upsets and headaches are so bad “they feel like a brain tumour.”
“It feels like you’re having a heart attack, like you’ve got pressure on your chest, like your legs are going to go from under you, or you’re going to faint when heightened anxiety or a panic attack comes on,” she said.
Lyn has two messages for governments, health authorities, doctors and the wider community.
First, don’t patronise people with anxiety disorders.
“I do get annoyed by the statement, the worried well; for the people who have anxiety or panic disorders, it’s very hurtful,” Lyn explained.
“They’re not just worrying for nothing; this is very real and very frightening.
“Throwing medication at people and leaving them on it long-term puts them in a worse place because they end up quite dependent on the meds and benzodiazepines [strong medication used to treat people with anxiety] are addictive.”
Secondly, increased funding is needed for more targeted, evidence-based treatment programs like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and peer support,
Rather than a system that relies on pills like a magic bullet, she is clear about the kind of mental healthcare policy she wants.
It is an approach built from the grassroots up that draws on the wisdom of people with lived experience.
“Nationally, mental health reform is still lacking the fundamental thing it needs, and that’s people [contributing to policy] who have travelled the journey and who know what works and what doesn’t,” she said.
“They [governments] are still not listening; we’re not getting reform because they’re listening to the wrong people.”
SANE Australia is a charity that puts peer support at the heart of its operations.
CEO Rachel Green said it’s understandable many Australians who already experience anxiety disorders, as well as those who haven’t, are doing it tough as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions and impact on families and daily life.
Rachel said speaking up about anxiety and early intervention is vital.
“In the last 12 months, we have seen the demand for our free counselling and online peer support services increase exponentially,” she said.
“This reflects the need in our community for people to talk to someone and feel a sense of connection when there is so much change and uncertainty.
“This time is hard for everyone, and it’s ok not to be ok and to reach out for help.”
Rachel highlighted the features on the SANE website: a range of factsheets, guides and blog posts.
The organisation also offers a range of support services for people, friends, family and carers.
That includes a phone helpline, an online chat service and internet forums, all staffed by qualified counsellors and peer workers.
Lyn is positive there’s hope for overcoming anxiety, even though it’s not always smooth sailing.
“It is very treatable, it’s probably one of the most treatable conditions in mental health, but it takes a lot of effort,” she said.
“It doesn’t necessarily completely go away… I don’t know that you get cured.
“It takes a lot to change who you are and how you think.”