General News — 10 December 2012

One man who crashed has found a way back from mental illness.

He had ended the year on top of his game, demonstrating the very skills and sharpness of mind that had seen him become a valuable partner in a global law firm.

So why was corporate lawyer John Canning lying, sobbing, alone in a Sydney flat in the summer of 2008? And why did it take him two weeks to get off the mattress and join his worried wife and kids in the Blue Mountains?

“I had a lot of work that happened at the end of 2007, and I did that very successfully, and it was a great job, and then I crashed,” he said.

“I woke up one morning and I was just crying and couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t see my family, I couldn’t see anyone. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t have the tools to work it out.”

While Mr Canning felt something was amiss – after all, he knew how to deal with pressure, whether it be getting exercise, having a night out or just taking a “John day” – it was his wife Mary who prompted him to seek help.

“Having been married to John at that point for almost 20 years, watching him progress from being a lawyer to a senior associate to a partner, I knew what he was like dealing with stress,” she said.

“And I remember saying to friends, `This is not normal stress’. He was less tolerant, he was far more irritable – things that started to really impact on us as a family and as a couple. And it was just not sitting at all well with me.”

Unbeknown to Mr Canning, his wife did an online mental health test on his behalf, and then suggested he do the same on the Black Dog Institute website. To his credit, Mr Canning did the test and, concerned enough by the results, made an appointment with the institute’s Gordon Parker, who immediately diagnosed mental illness.

But Mr Canning’s great awakening did not come until Professor Parker was asked if he was sure of the diagnosis, and replied that he was “99.9 per cent sure”.

“That just smacked me in the face like there was no tomorrow,” Mr Canning said.

“It’s something in your life that you never thought that you would encounter. You just sit there and say, OK, well, right, this is happening to me, am I pleased about this? Is that really something which I want to live with? And have I been living with this?”

In the emotional months that followed, Mr Canning reflected on certain times in his life where he realised his illness was the missing part of the picture. With greater self-awareness, he embraced his broad treatment regime, knowing all too well that his mental health and wellbeing has an impact not only on his own levels of happiness, and productivity, but on others.

While Mr Canning’s account is something of a success story, in Australia the number of men whose mental illness is untreated, sometimes leading to suicide, is unacceptable.

According to the Black Dog Index — an initiative of the Black Dog Institute and The Australian, powered by Newspoll — there are many men who would not do what Mr Canning did and seek help.

The latest survey of 1213 adult Australians found that while 71 per cent of women were likely to seek help if they had an extended blue patch — so sad or down that they had lost interest or pleasure in normal activities most of the day, every day, for two weeks or more — only 51 per cent of men would put up their hand.

Worse still, 23 per cent of men said they were “very unlikely” to seek help — double the rate of women who gave that response.

According to Black Dog Institute executive director Helen Christensen, the stigma of mental illness is enough to prevent some people from seeking treatment, even if “people think they are going to be stigmatised more than they actually will be”.

“The fear is greater than the actual result,” she said.

Younger people were also less likely to seek help, according to the index, something Professor Christensen said reflected the trait of self-reliance seen in men and the feeling that they could handle it themselves.

“There is a lot of help available, you can even get help for your problems anonymously through web-based applications, even mobile phone applications,” she said.

“And if people have a positive past experience of getting help, and of being supported, they are more likely to do it in future.”

Mr Canning — who, before his diagnosis, was your typical “she’ll be right” Aussie male — implores other men to be self-aware and to know that, sometimes, they will need help to perform at their best.

He is on medication, receives cognitive therapy, and pays attention to his diet, exercise and sleep, knowing when he needs to take a mental health day to get back on track.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Mr Canning’s colleagues and clients have never treated him differently, despite his initial concerns, and he now volunteers for the Black Dog Institute trying to address the perceptions and misconceptions of mental illness.

“I think it is the stigmatisation of mental illness that leads people not to go and seek help,” he said.

“That’s the biggest factor. In all of what I have seen in corporate life, in all of what I have seen in working with Black Dog, that’s the single biggest issue that no one has been able to conquer.”

If you need help, call Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis line (13 11 14), see your doctor or visit the Black Dog Institute website www.blackdog.org.au

As first appeared in The Australian, 10 December 2012.

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