The day Mum went missing began much like any other day: wrangling my eldest daughter out of her PJs into something resembling an outfit that would last the day at kindy, as well as attempting to get a brush through her hair so she didn’t look like some orphaned waif.
At the same time I was ratting through the dress-up box trying to find my youngest daughter’s current favourite polyester Disney dress-up. None of the costumes seem to be right because despite the sticky, humid Sydney day, the princess gown had to have “long sleeves”.
So after finding the right dress, ignoring the nest of knots at the back of Miss Four’s head and herding them both out the door, I could almost smell the coffee I was going to fortify myself with, before my daughter and I visited Mum in hospital.
I reminded myself to order two – the thought of good caffeine fix might be enough to elicit a whisper of a smile from my mother. She had been going down, down, down with her latest bipolar episode.
A spell in a psychiatric hospital was hopefully a way to fine tune her meds and rescue her before she slipped into that scary, black cave of nothingness.
My story is not unique. Many, many Australians are caring for a loved one with a mental illness. It’s a situation that you can find isolating, confusing and frustrating.
That is why the findings of the world’s first national report card on mental health and suicide prevention by the National Mental Health Commission are so significant. In the detailed report there are some shocking figures.
According to Professor Allan Fels, Chair of the NMHC, “people with a severe mental illness will have their life expectancy reduced by 25 years on average due to the increased likelihood of heart related conditions, diabetes and obesity.”
The Commission also found worrying evidence of the high use of seclusion and restraint in mental health facilities. At the moment not all jurisdictions are obliged to publicly report their use of seclusion.
But what makes this report different is that people – not statistics and bar graphs – are at its heart.The NMHC report is rich with stories of those with a mental illness, their families and supporters.
Too often such stories are overlooked. Shame, stigma and exhaustion can all contribute to such experiences remaining hidden.
It also means that you can often feel like you’re the only one, the only family going through it. And I’ve been there. My family and I go into
paramedic mode when mum gets sick. But despite our years of ‘experience’ our ability to handle different situations can be hit and miss.
So I found myself feeling desperately unequipped and vulnerable that morning, clutching a tray of coffee in one hand, and holding my daughter’s hand with the other as we both headed towards her hospital room.
I had found that a coffee and cuddle from both of us helped Mum. Or perhaps it just helped me to feel like I was grounding her in reality. The reality of the love she had around her: two generations of girls who would not give up on her.
But that particular morning I feared that mum had given up on us… She was not in her room.
The hospital had no idea where she had gone. We were told they would call the police if she didn’t turn up soon.
My sister, who had also arrived to visit, and my husband, who I had frantically phoned for help, found ourselves driving around the streets surrounding the hospital, looking, looking…
One of those steep streets led to a ferry wharf.
Our minds were working overtime. Perhaps mum was on a ferry? So I found a number for Sydney ferries.
An incredibly kind man on the other end of the phone took down the details as I gave him mum’s description. My mobile rang fifteen minutes later and this gentle man explained that mum had been located and the ferry would be diverted to the wharf to arrive in around half an hour.
When the ferry pulled up – one of the crew helped me across into the boat. He explained that mum didn’t know I was there to pick her up, as they weren’t sure how she would react.
Well when I found my mother gazing desolately out the ferry window I didn’t get the reaction I had hoped. She jumped in fright when I reached across to her. Mum screamed at me – and told me she wasn’t budging out of her seat.
I was frightened. This woman with the mad, sad eyes was not my mum.
Eventually I convinced her to come with me and to get off the ferry. Eventually I managed to get her in my car. She wouldn’t look at me. She was enraged I had found her. Eventually I coaxed her out of my car and back into the hospital.
She screamed at me to leave her there and to just go… I wasn’t going anywhere until I knew that Mum was going to be closely monitored, and put into the locked ward for her own safety.
Advocating, persuading, persisting and staying upright in such heightened situations can suck the soul right out of you.
Even more so when you feel like you’re working at cross purposes with the ‘experts’. Little wonder that governments have let the situation slip. But the National Mental Health Commission says it will not let that happen anymore. It has put the powerful on notice.
It is not good enough that the most vulnerable in our community have a drastically reduced life span, that they are put in seclusion and restrained. It will take courage for governments to make the big changes required to improve the state of our mentally ill and their families.
I know those living with mental illness have extraordinary courage and bravery. Let our leaders match them.
MORE STORIES BY JESSICA ROWE
*Jessica Rowe is a broadcaster and writer who, in a career spanning 20 years, has worked at all the major Australian commercial television networks. She is has written the best selling book, Love. Wisdom. Motherhood as well as co-authoring The Best of Times, the Worst of Times with her mother Penelope Rowe. Follow Jessica on Twitter @msjrowe or visit her website at www.jessicarowe.com.au.