sad girl covering her mouth

A study released this week has found that four out of 10 Australians who take sick leave for depression lie about the reason to their boss.

Half of them do so because they think they’ll lose their job if the truth comes out. The study by SANE also discovered that Australians are twice as likely to hide mental health issues from their boss as Europeans.

These troubling figures come in the same week that TV personality Charlotte Dawson was sacked from her management agency for being too open about her mental health issues.

For Jessica Martin, the news brought back many unhappy memories. Here’s her story.

Last week Charlotte Dawson admitted herself to Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital suffering from a “big whopping” panic attack. It’s not the first time her mental illness has forced her to take solace there – she was also admitted in August 2012 after attempting suicide.

The day after her panic attack Dawson retweeted a link to a news story detailing her latest trip to the hospital with the caption, “Never be ashamed.” Three days after that she received news that Chic – the management agency that represents her – was ceasing their professional relationship with her because they felt as though her openness surrounding her struggle with mental illness was damaging her brand and making it difficult for them to generate business for her.

ashamed man covering his face

Watching Dawson’s tweets and Instagram pictures roll in the night of her panic attack, and reading about the subsequent fallout with her agency, I felt a familiar sadness wash over me. I can’t and won’t pretend to know exactly what was going through Dawson’s mind this last week or so, or what she was feeling last year when found herself in hospital, but I can imagine. Because I’ve been there.

A few years ago in the midst of a particularly bad bout of depression, I found myself on the verge of a debilitating panic. Worried that I was going to do something that couldn’t be undone, I left my apartment between short breaths and big sobs, put myself in a cab and asked the driver to take me to the nearest hospital – St Vincent’s.

“I’m scared I’m going to hurt myself,” I told the nurse in the ER.

“Take a seat,” she said.

I sat on the hard plastic chair, doubled over in panic and despair, and cried.

Soon a couple of my friends arrived. My ex who I had spoken to before getting in the taxi had called them to be with me. They’d never seen me in such a state before, and through confused but concerned eyes I saw their disbelief and worry. I don’t begrudge them their inability to understand exactly what they were seeing. In fact, occasionally I’ll get jealous of people who have never felt the acute nothingness and heavy burden that is depression. I wish I was like them. I wish I didn’t know what it felt like.

After sitting a while in the waiting room, offering one-word answers to questions I didn’t want to think about, I got up, walked out the hospital doors and with a light head and legs that didn’t feel my own, headed to the road to step out into oncoming traffic.  For the first time in days, I felt the slightest prism of clarity enter my mind; I was looking forward to it all being over.

But I couldn’t do it. I was “too chicken” I later told my psychiatrist. I sat by the side of the road until my friends retrieved me and took me back inside.

therapist comforting her depressed crying woman

Are the suicidal or those struggling with mental illness looking for attention? No, we’re looking for relief; we just want the pain gone. The attention we receive because of our thoughts or actions can be embarrassing and humiliating. Another person’s concern in a time when we hate ourselves so deeply is as confronting as our own menacing thoughts. Why? Because we don’t think we deserve their love and care. We can’t imagine why they are looking at us with sad eyes and touching us with kind hands – don’t do that, we are nothing! Why are you wasting your time on us? I thought you had plans to go to the beach today? Do that instead. Please.

The mind of a depressive, particularly one with suicidal ideation, is a dark beast.

It’s a beast that is telling us we’re worthless and that the world would be better off without us in it. In our lowest moments, we want nothing more than history to be wiped clean of our name; it’s not so much that we want to be dead, more that we wish we’d never been alive.

Back in the emergency department, I am taken to a white room with a mattress on the floor and a security camera trained on my limp body and deep shame. I lie huddled up, eyes puffy slits from crying, bone-tired and so, so sad.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt suicidal and I doubt it will be the last, but I hope it was the worst. Some days when your illness is making itself known in the worst way possible, the thought of dying walks beside you like a loving puppy. “What if you did such and such to hurt yourself!” it yaps at your feet. “That would be good! That would make the pain stop!” Other days it stares at you from cold, dark eyes – a monster entering your veins like poison, daring you to take the final step.

No doubt Dawson’s dismissal from Chic was a low personal blow, but it was also one that is insulting to all people who suffer mental illness. In response to the news, Dawson said, “I think this is a shame for others in my situation. The message being if you suffer from mental illness you are defective and at worst unemployable.” I tend to agree. I was so worried that my trip to the hospital would be looked upon negatively, that I lied to my employers about why I needed the time off work to recover. This has to stop.

Despite the criticism Charlotte Dawson receives for her honesty and openness, she has never shied away from talking about her depression. She understands that by speaking out about it others feel less alone.

And we’re not alone. In a country that sees one in five people affected personally in any given year, we should never be ashamed to talk about mental illness.

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