What I'm coming to understand, is that anywhere up to half of all Australians will experience mental health issues at some point in the life. Depending where you read the statistics are different but on average:
1 in 6 people experience depression,
1 in 4 experience anxiety.
While there are MANY reasons and causes for mental health issues, there is no denying that the discovery of a disability or the diagnosis of a chronic illness is often a trigger point. Any significant trauma, whether in childhood or adulthood, can trigger depression and the trauma experienced by having the rug pulled out from underneath you at the highly emotional time of pregnancy or post birth IS a trauma. The grief which consumes when you think of lost possibilities and the future that will never be, when your expectations for tomorrow are savagely ripped from you, is often a precursor for a down hill journey into poor mental health. If this is in addition to any previous traumas then you have a stew pot of 'at risk' elements.
The mental health issues that arise are JUST AS REAL as the physiological symptoms of disability and chronic illness. (For the record I also want to include learning difficulties that aren't technically in the category of disability, though they can be just as debilitating). So often people want to dismiss mental health as though it's a choice that people indulge in, rather than thinking of it like any other illness that requires treatment.
In the case of Down syndrome, not only do you have the grief of a diagnosis, but it occurs at a time when the mother is already on a hormonal roller coaster - postnatal depression can easily erode what should be a joyful time. A chronic illness often manifests in symptoms that further feed depression and anxiety and the snowball effect continues. Other people feel their quality of life is somehow less because of a disability or illness.
Something I try to touch on with each blog is the idea that we do have a choice about how we experience the world. Now, as I said before, people don't CHOOSE to have a mental illness, however despite living through a veil of disability or depression, or anxiety, we still have a choice about how we experience the world. We CAN choose how we experience difficulty.
This blog entry is something that has been percolating in my head like a strong brew for some time. Earlier this year I was blessed to attend a presentation on growth mindset by Josie Thomson. The presentation was a summary of the neuroscience behind a threat mindset (using the primitive part of our brain) and a growth mindset (using our frontal lobe for executive functioning). It was a fantastic seminar and I recommend having a read through her website.
And add to that presentation a few TED talks:
The idea that we build our own identity, not so much by our experiences, but how we chose to forge meaning from them, is such a powerful one, and I think a very succinct way to sum up what it is that I'm discovering about myself in my 30s. Are we a victim? Or are we a survivor? I won't ever say my daughter 'suffers from' Down syndrome or Grave's disease, because neither she nor I are victims. We experience Down syndrome and we experience hyperthyroidism.
Stuff happens in life that leads so many down the path of mental illness, and it almost goes hand in hand with disability (for many cultural and contextual reasons I'll save for another blog!). How we choose to think about and speak about our experiences is how we will forge meaning and build our identities. How we choose to respond as friends, family members and a broader community speaks volumes about OUR choices. Have a think about those numbers - 1 in 6 people experience depression, and 1 in 4 experience anxiety - and now think about your friends and family. At dinner with friends last night included reminiscing about the computers of yesteryear and I was struck by WYSIWYG - What You See Is What You Get. This is so very true, in many different ways when you think about living with any illness/disability. How you see life is what you will get from it. How you see others dealing with illness/disability is what is going on inside of them.
I don't know what the future holds, none of us do. My big girl's health may get significantly worse or she may get her thyroid back under control, who knows? She may live independently or we might have to support her for the rest of our lives. Change is inevitable, but unpredictable. It is much easier to cope with though with a growth mindset and not a victim mentality.