DESPITE 50 years in the health profession, most of it specialising in mental health, Sandy Brooks was taken unawares by depression.
She’d spent a lifetime talking to people about symptoms like lack of motivation, withdrawal and disinterest yet did not recognise them in herself.
Frankly, without realising it, she never believed depression could happen to her.
But depression treats everybody the same.
And like the thousands of people Sandy has helped in a lifetime of dedication to the health profession, the first step for her was recognising and accepting she was suffering from the medical condition of depression.
Today, having come a long way down the recovery path, Sandy is willing to share her story in a bid to reduce the stigma she still believes is attached to depression.
And to promote the R U OK? campaign – because she firmly believes it is one of the most crucial tools society has in its battle to improve mental health outcomes.
Sandy began her nursing career straight out of high school and took on additional training in psychiatric fields early on.
She spent 10 years with the Army’s nursing core working with post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) patients, young soldiers away from home and those with behavioural problems.
Not long after she went back to civilian nursing in Sydney, she started looking to fulfil her desire to live in the country and own land.
She found “Tildabrook” at Caparra, near Wingham on the North Coast, and began breeding Limousin-Droughtmasters for veal production.
The plan was to retire but she found she needed the stimulation of work so took up a part-time position as a clinical nurse specialist in mental health promotion and prevention with the Taree Community Health Centre.
Since then she has worked tirelessly running support groups for people with mental health issues and for carers, training others in mental health first aid, offering loss and grief support and pioneering local groups like Pets of Older Persons and Living Ruff.
The first supports seniors with mental illness by providing foster care for their pets while they seek treatment and the latter supports homeless people with pets in the same way.
She has made a big difference to thousands of people who have needed to seek help to overcome some form of mental health problem.
Today, she is doing exactly the same but the difference is she can speak from first-hand experience.
For Sandy, it started three years ago when she slipped on a wet concrete floor and landed on her head, leaving her with a brain injury and speech and memory problems.
“It forced me out of work for months and I found myself in a position where I wasn’t being productive and my physical health was poor,” she said.
“That led to a lack of motivation. I wasn’t interested at all in what was going on around me. I didn’t feel like doing anything.
“I was turning down all invitations. I was not enjoying, and then not participating at all, in all the things I used to.
“I withdrew and eventually, I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.”
The turning point came when her manager told her she was depressed.
“It all fell into place,” Sandy said.
“I knew all about depression but I’d never experienced it and I never thought it could happen to me.”
Having someone else recognise it was what it took for Sandy to get on the road to recovery.
And that is why she believes the R U OK? message is so important.
“When someone is potentially suicidal asking them if they are thinking of harming themselves is the right thing to do because it means somebody has noticed things aren’t right for you,” she said.
“Depression is a medical condition and can be treated.
“Once you recognise it and accept it you can do something about it.
“I started talking to family and friends and with the help of people close to me I was able to deal with it.”
Sandy said one of the things that helped her greatly was an electronic brain training program she used daily.
“I also tried to do something new every day, whether it be going for a walk, ringing somebody or going to dinner with friends,” she said.
“They may seem simple things but they were accomplishments.”
Sandy said her experience has advanced her ability to do her job.
“I can now say depression feels like this.”
For more advice on dealing with mental health or suicide prevention, contact:
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
- SANE Australia 1800 18 SANE (7263)
This article was first published in The Land's 2013 Glove Box Guide to Mental Health. To read more from the guide, click here.