One day when Sophie woke up the world had slightly less colour in it. She tells Robert Fedele her engrossing story of what happened next.
THEY had spoken about it for months. On and off and then constantly. Day by day the conversations began to grow in intensity and certainty.
From the beginning, Sophie had absorbed and accepted the messages, but only ever reluctantly. Now it seemed inevitable. A date had been set and was fast approaching. And then she made the call that would save her life.
‘‘At one point I just said to myself, If I don’t tell somebody this is happening right now I’m going to be dead next week. And that’s not what I really want from life. I don’t want to throw my life away at 15. Someone needs to come and help me.’’
Sophie is sitting cross-legged in a worn grey lounge chair in a tiny interview room at Orygen Youth Health in Parkville, a leading mental health service for people aged 15-25.
She sports ripped black stockings, a designer white T-shirt and a black hoodie.
She’s neither shy nor confident, and answers questions with composure and intelligence. When she smiles she reveals a line of sparkly braces.
At 16, Sophie seems every bit the normal teenager. But in the next half hour she reveals her battle with depression and anxiety and the deterioration which led to psychosis and voices in her head urging her to take her own life.
There were no warning signs as such, Sophie explains.
She grew up in Williamstown with her two parents and older sister and attended a private girls school in Melbourne.
The signs of depression and anorexia surfaced when she was 11 or 12, coupled with bullying at school and an innate sense of feeling different and unworthy.
But Sophie is still uncertain about the specific triggers that led to her feeling unwell.
‘‘It was just sort of one day I woke up and the world had slightly less colour in it and I just wasn’t happy any more.’’
When Sophie was 12 she began seeing counsellors to try to unravel the reasons behind her ‘‘sickness’’.
‘‘I would just sit there and refuse to speak,” she recalls. “I just refused to let the help in and it was never going to work for me.
‘‘Some places made me feel like I needed to feel ashamed of what was going on in my head.’’
Even family and friends were brushed aside as Sophie felt more and more like an outcast.
‘‘I did have support,” she says, “but it didn’t feel like it. I became quite blinded to all the good things in the world as well as my relationship with my parents and my friends. I would slowly withdraw and push everyone away. I was on this mission to make myself sick without realising it.’’
In 2010, when she was 14 and in year 9 at high school, Sophie started an online blog which she describes as a personal diary of rants from her thoughts and emotions.
Writing was her one outlet, and it did plenty of good. Some of the bullying stopped, Sophie says, because people realised ‘‘there was a reason I was like that’’.
At one stage the blog had 4000 weekly readers.
More than anything, though, it gave her a chance to reach out.
Sophie doesn’t remember when the conversations began. But she remembers when it all came to a head. It was in the middle of last year that the voices and visions became stronger and more frightening. They were telling her to kill herself. And they’d even given her a date to do it.
Sophie finally summoned the courage to contact Headspace, Australia’s national youth mental health foundation.
Headspace referred Sophie to Orygen and a doctor visited her for two weeks before the ‘‘date’’. On the day she was meant to kill herself she was under hospital supervision at Orygen’s inpatient unit in Footscray.
‘‘The support there was really great. It didn’t become easy ... at all. But I gave my trust to Orygen and committed to making myself better.’’
Sophie began her recovery by going on anti-psychotic medication for six months but found that wasn’t for her.
‘‘It was working but I didn’t enjoy it,” she says. “I didn’t like the way that I felt on it.’’
After increased support from doctors and counsellors, Sophie slowly started getting better.
Three months later the voices disappeared.
It’s been a year since the psychosis. She is no longer on medication but visits Orygen once a week to talk to her case manager. She also visits a separate doctor to monitor her weight.
She moved out of home six months ago and is living in a share-house in Footscray and working in retail.
While her period of darkness is by no means over, she feels a sense of the tide turning.
Does she feel herself again?
‘‘Definitely. I sort of described it through my writing at the time as watching myself lose reality. I knew the things I was hearing weren’t real, but I was so terrified of what would happen if I went against them. It was the worst torture in the world.’’
Through her involvement with Orygen, Sophie recently became part of its platform team, where young people who have used the service take a role in shaping how it can be improved for others.
Youth participant co-ordinator Melissa Thurley says 25 young people in ‘platform’ contribute their experiences.
‘‘It’s really important for young people when they come to a service like this to know that their input and their feedback and their ideas can shape how we actually deal with the services for young people,’’ she says.
Asked why she’s chosen an active role in helping others, Sophie says one of the major reasons was trying to change people’s perceptions.
‘‘I present myself now as a normal 16-year-old going about doing my thing and I think it’s really important for some people to realise that mental illness doesn’t define a person. It doesn’t set them apart. It doesn’t make them weird or abnormal. I’m just who I am and this is something that I’ve been through and this is how I got through it.’’
Rates of suicide in young men increased from the 1970s to the middle 1990s before declining. Rates for young women have been fairly steady.
While the numbers of deaths and rates are relatively low, suicide is still the biggest cause of death in young people.
In 2010, 24 per cent of all deaths among men aged 15-24 were due to suicide.
For women, suicide comprised a higher proportion of total deaths in younger age groups compared with older age groups.
‘‘I think at the end of the day, statistics speak for themselves,’’ Thurley says. ‘‘We lose two and half thousand people every year and it averages out to something like six people every day. We need to talk about it. It’s horrific.’’
Sophie agrees and has no apprehension about talking about the taboo topic.
A year on from her ‘‘episode’’ she feels lucky not to have become another statistic.
‘‘That was one of my driving forces for contacting Orygen, thinking that I don’t want to just be that girl that killed herself at 15 or 13 or 14 or whatever. I wish somebody had said that this is a normal thing and what hundreds and thousands of people go through every day.’’
It’s both scary and heartening to think that someone as young as Sophie can go through so much and come out the other side.
Still 16, she has her life ahead of her and dreams of becoming a journalist; something combining her love of music and writing. She has found ways to deal with her bad days and not breaking down over the slightest things.
I ask her if she’s afraid of the future, of becoming ill again?
‘‘Not really. The future can’t possibly be as bad as my past. But I wouldn’t change anything. It’s sort of made me who I am.’’
MENTAL HEALTH WEEK
October 7-13 is Mental Health Week, which coincides with World Mental Health Day on October 10. For more information, visit mentalhealthvic.org.au
Headspace Western Melbourne: 9091 8222, headspace.org.au
Lifeline: 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
beyondblue Info line: 1300 224 636
Mensline Australia: 1300 789 978
Orygen Youth Health: 9342 2800
Norwood mental health service: 9365 9500
Mental Illness Fellowship of Victoria Helpline: 8486 4222