We all have mental health, we all have stories to share, and we can all use our voices to inspire conversations, take action and create change.
When Deakin nursing student Briana lost her beloved brother Jayden to mental illness in 2018, her entire world turned upside down. The crushing grief and ongoing anguish caused by his death has affected her, and her family, in a multitude of ways, but this amazing young woman is determined to honour her brother by working to improve mental health services and use her voice to share what she’s learnt about life and loss.
A builder who loved to surf, fish and travel, Jayden was only 30 years old when he died, and Briana describes receiving the news of his death as ‘overwhelming and frightening. I lost all concept of normality and my mind turned numb. It took weeks before I was able to comprehend that he had passed away, and I was functioning in a highly depressed state’.
In coming to terms with such a devastating loss, all aspects of Briana’s life were impacted and her own mental health showed the effects of sudden bereavement and grief. She found it harder to concentrate in class, attend social gatherings and communicate her feelings with her support networks. ‘Early on, I felt that I was abnormal in many ways and I experienced feelings of extreme shame and guilt, emotions that I had not experienced on such a large scale before,’ she explains. ‘These feelings were mixed with sadness and confusion that I carried from the moment I woke up in the morning. Since Jayden’s death, for the first time in my life I have had to face my mind and its complexity, and that feels incredibly daunting.’
Finding light in the dark
Briana began grief counselling just three weeks after Jayden’s death, and she says that accessing support services so early on was crucial. ‘Seeking help early allowed me to develop protective mental health strategies for the coming months and years, and trust the experience of opening up about feelings and fears, which can be really hard to do.’
Opening up to a psychologist can be daunting, so you need to feel comfortable with the dynamic. Briana saw two different counsellors before feeling that she could fully establish a connection, so remember that ‘the first psychologist you see may not be the last one’. She recommends ‘trusting the experience of accessing professional help. They are there to aid you, and provide a safe space to unpack what’s happening in your life and in your mind.’
When asked what advice she would share with someone in a similar situation, Briana says to be kind – to yourself and to others. While she has learnt that life can be really unforgiving at times, she wants people who are suffering to not define themselves by their condition: ‘Remind yourself regularly that you are not your mental illness or emotional pain; it is just a factor in your life, and you can recover and build resilience with the right tools and support. Find activities in your life that give you purpose and feelings of joy, and you will find that they have huge power when you are having a hard time.’
Another vital source of strength is friends and family, and Briana points out it’s the little things that can really make a difference: ‘Sometimes, it was just acknowledging with a hug or kind look that made me feel cared for and supported, and that really helped how I felt going forward that day. Sometimes care can be doing, and not just talking! It could be a care package, helping with dishes, helping with studies, taking a friend walking. Practical things make a world of difference and are always so appreciated.’
Using her voice
Briana is bravely sharing her story to help break down the stigma associated with mental health and to advocate for suicide prevention. She is a firm believer that educating yourself and others about this common issue is a powerful form of therapy and one of the most useful tools for preventing the devastating effects of suicide: ‘There is something incredibly special about a hot cup of tea and a good conversation surrounding mental illness; the best tool when destigmatising is through educating. Sharing the human experience is an incredibly valuable tool to personal recovery and helping others gain awareness and understanding.’
But Briana is going a step further. When she lost her brother, she looked for all the support networks available, but found no current suicide bereavement support groups in her home town of Warrnambool. So she has made it her mission over the coming year to create the first.
She also used her voice for her brother at the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, where she gave recommendations into mental health services. Going through this process gave Briana a feeling of purpose and made her feel as though she was making a difference in future suicide prevention. Having become a firm believer in the need for improved youth advocacy, Briana says while it was daunting to be one of the youngest people in a room full of mental health professionals, everyone was incredibly supportive. Giving her lived experience of mental health and suicide was her way of putting a human face on the statistics and policy discussion. ‘At the base level, it’s human experience,’ she says. ‘People experience mental illness or unexpected life changes every day.’
Accessing support services
For anyone dealing with loss or struggling with their mental health, Briana recommends a range of coping strategies, ranging from talking to professionals to finding ways to relax:
- Visit your GP – Briana accessed a mental health care plan and was eligible for 10 subsidised sessions through headspace.
- Call a 24/7 support service – Briana talked to her local Lifeline Suicide Bereavement Support Service, who helped her at a moment when she was feeling particularly sad and overwhelmed.
- Access Deakin’s support services – Briana contacted on-campus counselling services and the Disability Resource Centre, who helped her establish a pathway to return to her final year of study.
- Listen to podcasts and read to promote self-education – there’s podcasts on just about anything you can imagine so find a subject you’re passionate about, or relax with your favourite genre of book.
- Take care of your physical health – it’s vital to eat well, exercise regularly and monitor underlying health concerns such as vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
- Find time for yourself – Briana practises yoga and meditation almost every day of the week, and also finds comfort and renewal through reiki.
- Start your own support group – Briana is in the process of establishing a bereavement support group in her home town of Warrnambool. If you’re in the area and you’d like to be involved, contact email@example.com and we can put you in touch with Briana.
In the eight months since she lost Jayden so suddenly, Briana has built resilience and worked her way back into life – never forgetting and always grieving, but with a determination to move ahead and use her voice to make a difference, so that others might avoid the same pain. ‘Recognise that you are not alone in your fight, and you will find strength in so many different ways once you seek help,’ she says.