Just a heads up - this episode features a personal story of mental health and contains themes of suicide. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service.
The world of medicine from when I was a medical student until up to now is very hierarchical, stoic, very competitive, and keeping pushing on is a trait that's admired. And that leads to a perfect storm.
Welcome to Not Alone, incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about hiding your mental health struggles at work.
[Friends with feelings theme song plays]
For as long as he can remember, Geoff liked helping people. It gave him a sense of purpose, a sense of this is what I'm supposed to do. It's hardly surprising then that one line of work began to appeal to him as he progressed through school.
So helping people has been a part of my life, as long as I can remember, I've always enjoyed that. I contemplated coming to Doctor probably early on. I used to like playing doctors on teddies, and, you know, fixing them up. And then early, high school years, I toyed with a number of different jobs. And then towards the end of school, I decided that health care or medicine was what I enjoyed, because I like helping people. I enjoy the science of how bodies worked, and how we could fix them and put them back together.
Geoff is a cardiologist. When things go wrong with someone's heart, that's when Geoff comes in. As you can imagine, it's a very stressful job. But before you're a cardiologist, you're a student for a really, really long time. And when Geoff was a medical student, mental health wasn't a big part of the curriculum.
When I studied medicine, which is a few decades ago, there was very limited education about mental health as a small part of the curriculum. We did receive some. It was limited, and it was more than really serious mental health issues that were discussed. Certainly they didn't discuss mental health issues that may afflict doctors or medical students.
And so after years of training, Geoff was thrust into the life of a junior doctor. He put all his energy into simply keeping up.
The work stresses were significant, and the hours were significant. We worked often, perhaps 48-56 hours in a row, without going home and often with little sleep. And so that was kind of our life really, for the first 3 or 4 years of being a junior doctor and a more senior trainee. On reflection, I know that towards the end of my training that I was burnt out, I had all the symptoms now looking back of burnout, which is kind of getting a little bit angry, getting a bit dissociated from the work, not wanting to do the work, wanting to rest. They were the kind of symptoms.
Geoff would go to great lengths to hide his burnout. After all, he thought, it wasn't in the code. But over time, burnout became something more.
So the first episode of anxiety was early to mid 30s, at the end of my training, to become a specialist. Just crowded places, being with people I didn't know... if I was going out to a function being really anxious that, about meeting people or sitting in a crowd, particularly a crowded indoor room was very difficult. I was anxious driving the car and worried about you know, causing an accident. I certainly wasn't sleeping. And I'd spend the night worrying or ruminating about often minor little things. And had this kind of inner fear of sort of doom at times but it's difficult to explain this kind of you know, feeling wired and hyped.
And then, there was noise.
Yeah noise used to make me irritable. So if I got into the car I'd turn the radio off and just, I just wanted to drive the car with the car noise and the hearing the car engine run. If I turned the radio on particularly talkback radio used to make me really anxious and concerned and annoy me. So I would drive the car silent with no radio on.
One of Geoff's great passions is the Richmond Football Club. As a kid, he would sit in the cheer squad surrounded by other fanatical supporters and barrack for his heroes in the yellow and black. But this aversion to noise meant one of his favorite pastimes became more of a trigger.
The crowd noise was alright, as long as it was in uniform. But the kind of music and other voices used to really annoy me, make me anxious, and I couldn't sit around people. So the first time I went back to the football after I was unwell, I made sure it was a quieter game and I could sit kind of a little alone for a while. And I wouldn't go up and get in the cues for the food or the toilet because that also was very anxiety provoking. And so one of my kind of joys and outlets just to sit and watch sport, particularly football was something I avoided.
You might be wondering, at this point, why Geoff, a qualified doctor who dedicates his life to helping others, didn't ask for help himself. But in his mind, at the time, being a doctor and having a mental health condition weren't compatible.
I was worried about the stigma of the mental health and what it would do to my career, that people would think I wasn't able to continue as a doctor. I kind of wanted to hide it from my friends, my family, and certainly my colleagues at work. You know, why should I be anxious and have an anxiety disorder and everyone else was feeling well, and coping.
So my thoughts at that time were that I shouldn't have got sick, I shouldn't have got anxious, I should have been stronger. The doctors don't get sick, and we should hide it. There was then as is now, I guess, a tendency to push on through illnesses when you shouldn't, I felt kind of ashamed that I had an anxiety disorder, and that I wasn't able to control it.
Another of Geoff's great passions is swimming. But just as his mental health condition had seeped into his joy for football, he also found it follow him into the water.
I'd sit for like 5 to 10 minutes struggling to even contemplate getting in the water and start swimming. I'd sometimes cry when I was swimming. I can remember doing sets in the pool and I knew I was crying. But in the pool, it's very easy for people not to see that you cry in the pool because you were surrounded by water, you're crying into goggles, your eyes may be a bit red. So they didn't really, they didn't know the distress I was feeling. It was me hard in my mental health issues, even though the people are swimming with were friends and would have helped me if they'd known what was going on.
Geoff symptoms of anxiety began to compete with his symptoms of depression. But he kept on working. And he kept on hiding.
So a lot of things going through my mind. I was tired, continuing all the time. So I get home exhausted. At night I found was a really bad time because it's the quietest time in the house - is when there's not much else going on. And so then you're trapped or ruminating over your kind of oppressive sort of mindset. I certainly felt at that stage a failure for developing these symptoms. I felt worthless. Like no one loved me no one concern - was concerned about me. The darkest stage got to a point of not feeling like I was worth living.
Geoff had hit rock bottom. He knew he needed help. But he also wanted validation for the feelings he had. The trouble sleeping, the exhaustion, irritability, worthlessness. So he did what so many of us do when looking for answers. He turned to the internet.
I went to the Beyond Blue website and looked up the symptoms of depression and pretty much ticked all the boxes on the symptoms and signs. And then there was a survey that you could do online, which I took. And then it was sent back to me saying that you're significantly depressed, we strongly advise you seek treatment.
That checklist, Geoff completed is called the K10. It's made up of 10 questions that measure how distressed you've been recently. It is a tool commonly used by Australian GPs, and mental health professionals. Or, like Geoff, you can do it yourself online. It only takes a few minutes, and can help determine what level of support you might need. And it wasn't the only catalyst for Geoff seeking help.
A really good friend texted me and said, they were really worried about me, and said, "You need to make an appointment to see your doctor. And we'll follow up later, today or tomorrow that you've done it." And so that really was the turning point, acknowledging that I was sick, and unwell. And I needed to get help. And so I rang up and made an appointment with my local doctor.
I remember sitting in the GP room, in the waiting room, lots of people around, I'm a doctor, I was concerned that they may recognize me as a patient, and they'll say you're sick and you've got depressive illness, which is kind of, you know, in retrospect is not a rational kind of thought, because depression is a very hidden illness. And I remember the GP calling in, and I basically sat down and said, I need help, was basically what I said, and then burst into tears.
And this time, there were no goggles to hide the tears. As they flowed, he was hit with a strange sensation.
One, it was just this build up of how sick I'd become, because I'd got to the stage of - I was suicidal then - and then a relief in other respects that I'd made the decision to seek help, and I was getting help, and I would get better.
The doctor sitting opposite a crying Geoff didn't judge him. Didn't question whether he was cut out for medicine. Instead, she did what he had signed up to do all those years earlier. She helped him.
The early steps of recovery were for my local doctor to explain what was going on. She then arranged for me to see a psychiatrist and psychologist, discuss with them some medication to start before I saw, saw him. And then to take some time off work as well. I did what most doctors would say, you know, we've got a list this afternoon. I've got patients I can't take time off. And the good thing about that was that she took control, told me I can't go to work, rang my workplace and didn't, didn't tell them what was wrong with me, but said I was unable to work for a period of time.
So stopping, resting, starting some medication and then starting to see a counsellor was the initial steps to recovery. I worked with the counsellor. Like it wasn't me just going in being the patient, you know, you'll fix me, bye. See you next week. You have to do your own work to get better. And then some of our own work was all these other things.
Those other things were ways that Geoff could switch off from work. Activities that brought him into a mindful space. Even if it wasn't a typical activity you'd associate with mindfulness.
Now, mindfulness is good, but I couldn't sort of sit in the Zen position and chill out. I told a friend at that stage and always wanted to learn the drums from a teenager, I'd never done that and she kindly gave me some drumming lessons.
Drumming is fun. I love drumming. Depends on the day what song I want to play. If I've had a bit of a stressful time, I might really belt the drums. If I'm feeling a little bit more chilled out I might be a bit more of a jazz drum. And it's good because it's rhythmic, it's repetitive and it just keeps me in this kind of moment of shutting out.
And then there was his other mindful activity. Swimming,
Swimming takes me into this mindful state. You can kind of shut off and I know when I'm feeling well, because all I'm concentrating on is my stroke or something. I'm focusing on the breathing. And it's nice when you can glide through the water and feel like you're, you know, at one with the water. Particularly in the ocean, you know, the ocean has other things with it, it has the smells of the, you know, the sea and has this fish you see swimming underneath and as the swell. And that's a little bit colder and the temperature varies when you're swimming in different parts. So it's really is a pleasant place to be.
Geoff's not sure when he'll retire from medicine. But when he does, he wants to leave behind a system that better supports its doctors and medical students. He became a doctor to help others. And now, he understands that to do that, he has to be okay with letting help in. It's why he shares his story.
It's slowly changing and getting better through advocacy, but it's still not at the level that it needs to be. And certainly it's not an environment when someone's a little bit unwell or not quite right, to get better. The legacy I want to leave is the change in the way we deal with mental health of doctors and medical students and the stigma changing so that it becomes much easier, the conversation becomes routine about someone's mental health issues, and that they can seek help in a very open way.
We want to say a big thanks to Geoff for sharing his story with us.
We've covered a range of mental health issues, and if anything has been upsetting for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 22 4636. We've also listed a number of resources in our show notes.
This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands.
Thanks for listening to Not Alone.