A Word on Mental Health, Wayne Petherick YHQLD

Mental Health is an Important Part of Life.  Sadly, Mental Health Issues are Also Common

Mental health is a state of well-being, or the absence of mental well being, that a person experiences either as a result of short term (acute) or long term (chronic) events.  These events can impact a person's life as a result of biological processes where an individual's genetic makeup predisposes them to adverse mental health conditions, their psychological status such as their emotional functioning, and their environment which may contribute to life stressors.  The current thinking is that all three of these "domains" interact to produce a positive or negative mental health outcome for an individual.

For example, your body may naturally produce lower levels of serotonin, a chemical involved in conditions such as depression, you may have less ways to emotionally cope with and respond to trauma, and your life may keep throwing you curve balls which add to both specific and general stress.  Such a combination may increase your chances of conditions like anxiety and depression.

Since I started kayak fishing, I have tried to fish with and meet as many people as I possibly can.  I take part in competitions not to win, but to meet and fish with new people.  I now have some great mates and some absolute legends I enjoy spending time on the water with.  Long hours afford long conversations, and I have learned some great things about my new friends.  They know something of my history, and I know something of theirs.  Some have children, some don't.  Some work, some don't.  They were as a diverse a group of people as I have ever come across.  One thing stood out among many, but not all.

A large number of people I had met kayak fishing had some degree of mental health issues.  These were also diverse and ranged from the mild to severe.  

It is estimated that 16% of the population suffer from mental health issues, from the very low levels of dysfunction to serious life altering forms.  The mild can include things like adjustment disorder where a person is experiencing new conditions in life and is having to accommodate or adjust to them right through to schizophrenia, PTSD, and serious mental health disorders.  I know that my experience isn't evidence, but it seemed to me that more than 16% of those I was meeting were telling me about their experiences with mental health.

While not all of those I met had either past or current mental health issues, all those with past or current mental health issues told me the same thing.  Without fail.  Every single one.  They took up kayak fishing as a way to help their situation.

I has started bike riding in 2018 for some health and fitness, mostly because I needed to lose weight.  Nothing serious, just some paths and walkways down around the lakes near home.  I wasn't a lycra wearing road warrior that so many think of when they picture a cyclist.

Another reason I had started cycling was because I needed a hobby.  Badly.  I had toyed with a couple of hobbies previously and did not seem to find one that I really enjoyed.  There was cycling of course.  Then there was the drone phase.  The computer games phase.  And a couple of other phases in between.  They were all fun in their own way but I did not realise until much later that they weren't the hobby I was looking for because of one simple thing: they were all solo activities (at least I was doing them solo).

Years of working too many hours, having a family and a home to maintain had seen my social circle leave me in the rear view mirror.  I was either never available for outings, I was working, or I was otherwise too busy.

I didn't know it at the time but the reason I needed a hobby so badly was burnout.  I knew I was tired, but I had no idea how tired I was.

All of my adult working life I had worked above and beyond the call.  I had a work ethic that was instilled in me from a young age and not only did I do more hours that I should have, I also took on more responsibilities than I should have.  I completely ignored the mental health consequences of doing so.  While I had volunteered to do all of these things, that did not free me from the consequences of doing them.  If anything it probably made it worse because I kept telling myself I had volunteered for it and that it was OK.  Or sure, I was busy, but I wasn't too busy.  Things crept in so slowly and subtly I didn't notice it until the stress of always working or always losing sleep becxause of work had taken its toll.

Burnout is often described as depression without the sadness.  That is true for some sufferers and to some degree, but only because the symptoms are so similar.  It's kind of like saying the flu is a cold without the fever.  They have similar characteristics but they actualy have different causes.  So too with depression and burnout: they are similar but different mental health disorders even though they have similar features.  Someone with burnout can suffer depression and vice versa.

So what is burnout?  The term burnout is wildly misused, with many claiming they are burnt out after a long or busy week or two.  Burnout as a mental health issue is not just being tired, it is being exhausted.  It is being exhausted all the time.  It is a condition that takes a long time to build up, and a long time to be "cured", if it ever is.  Real burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive or long term stress.  

The general symptoms of burnout include:

* Lacking motivation in work, or feeling detached or unfulfilled by your work (work is the most common source of burnout)
* Experiencing lower productivity in work output
* Having little to no energy, even for small or menial tasks
* Feeling detached in relationships
* Getting sick more often than usual
* Having a pessimistic outlook and experiencing lower work satisfaction
* Taking time away from work or family commitments, especialy for non-essential or extra curricular activities such as parties or functions
* Small obstacles create a heightened or excessive response (a dropped food item might lead to you punch a wall for example)
* Inability to focus or concentrate

What are the Stages of Burnout?

Like many similar conditions, burnout doesn't just happen.  You don't just wake up one day being burnt out.  Like depression, anxiety, and other disorders, burnout builds up over time as a result of many factors though satress is the most notable.  That is what makes these disorders so insidious: they are often on you before you realise it, and by then it is too late.  One of the most common models of burnout is adapted from a book published in 1981 about work stress.  It is from the University of Wisconsin and includes the following 5 stages:

1.  Honeymoon:  In the honeymoon phase, there is high job satisfaction, high work output, and high levels of energy.  Many develop effective coping strategies for dealing with acute and chronic work stresses and if these work then it is possible to remain in the honeymoon phase indefinitely.  Few people can actually maintain this for too long.
2.  Balancing Act:  After a period of time you become aware that you aren't working as effectively as you would like and that some days are better than others.  You might notice yourself "snapping" at loved ones or work colleagues as things get on top of you.  You may notice more job dissatisfaction, your productivity may be declining, or that you are still tired even after good rest (although your sleep may also be suffering), and you may increase "escape activities" where you will choose something that requires little or no physical or emotional exertion such as watching television over getting work done.
3.  Chronic Symptoms:  The experiences of stage 2 get worse and exhaustion becomes chronic.  Prolonged stress causes the body to shut down the immune system so you may find yourself getting sick more often, and you may experience anger and depression.
4.  Crisis:  It is during this stage that you realise you have a problem and seek help though it may be too late for immediate relief.  Physical symptoms increase in number and intensity, and work frustrations intensify and you will find yourself obsessing about them.  They will often "creep" into your thinking even when you aren't thinking about them or when you are doing something unrelated.  Pessimism (generally thinking in a negative way about many things) becomes a normal pattern.  As a result of the total consumption of the burnout, you may develop a plan to escape - changing work, early retirement, or just quitting your job all seem to be more viable than staying.
5.  Enmeshment:  In this stage the symptoms are so pervasive (run throughout many aspects of life) you may get labeled as something different by those around you.  Rather than being burnt out you will be called disagreeable, rude, angry, pessimistic, lazy, or other generally negative terms.  Even after your bosses, colleagues, and family know they may continue to use these terms or say generally unhelpful things like "just try to be happy", "be thankful you have a job", or "snap out of it".  By this stage it is not possible to "just" do any of these things.

On a Sunny Day in December, 2018

I was out riding my bike around Lake Orr in the Gold Coast suburb of Varsity Lakes as I did every morning. 

I rounded a bend near the bridge spanning from one side of the lake to the other. Under the foot bridge I saw a guy on a Dragon kayak casting into the bridge pylons. 

I don't know what it was about that image that appealed to me at that time as I had certainly seen many land based fishos around the same place and that didn't have the same allure. Perhaps it was his ability to handle his yak around the pylons with one hand on his oar while casting with the other. Maybe it was his ability to get where a boat couldn't. Maybe I just liked the thought of being on the water. 

Whatever it was, the sight of him on that yak at that time sparked an interest I had to investigate: I was going to buy a kayak and take up fishing, an activity that I had not done since I was a child (fishing, not kayaking though I had certainly never kayaked either). I bought a kayak and joined Yak Hunters. It wasn't long before I met some great people and started tagging along on trips with others. 

I had been going out alone too, and that is something I enjoy to this day but there is nothing like seeing a fleet of yaks on the water together. There is nothing like new mates. There is nothing like new species, and personal bests. There is nothing like finding that hobby that can start to repair what years of long days, weeks, and months of work and stress damaged. 

Kayak fishing can be a solo activity, but it is also a social activity. And I think I found what the others who came before me and chose to share their stories with me had already found: hanging out with good mates doing something you love is good for your physical, psychological, and emotional health.

I do not want to hijack the discussion of mental health or make this article all about me. I openly and honestly acknowledge there are many out there suffering similar or much worse than me. Every day is a struggle for some and not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to people who can help. 

And I don't mean to minimise anyone's experience. We all have our own experiences and our own stories.

I only hope to show you that it is OK to talk about mental health, something that has traditionally been taboo. If you are struggling, reach out. Call a friend, see your GP, or use any range of services available to you. Throw up a post looking for fellow yakkers to join you on the water. 

I am always open to meeting new people and trying out new waters.  Just know that some days loading up that gear may need more energy than I have so the answer from me may not always be I'll see you there!

Most importantly, remember that it's not weak to speak.
There are a range of mental health services available to those who may be having difficulty.  Below are just a few you can use.

1.  Mental Health Care Plan:  See your GP and fill out a mental health care plan.  This will allow you access to a psychologist for a certain number of visits either free of charge or for a small gap payment.  These visits will be available each year though you will have to see your GP to renew your mental health care plan.
2.  Beyond Blue:  Beyond Blue are an amazing service who provide mental health support.  Their New Access Coach is free of charge and can be accessed via telephone.  Beyond Blue acan be found here or their New Access service here.  Beyond Blue can also be reached by telephone on 1300 224 636.
3.  Lifeline offer telephone support and counselling services.  Lifeline is also free of charge and can help in acute and chronic crisis states.  Their website can be found here and their telephone number is 13 11 44.
4.  The Black Dog Institute:  The BDI is dedicated to understanding and treating mental illness.  They receive some support from government and the private sector but also run fee based education programs and clinics.  They provide a lot of resources, education, and training, and can give you links to support services and agencies.  Their website can be found here.
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