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Mental Health Series: A journey into anxiety

Monday 9 October 2017 9:29am

This week is New Zealand’s Mental Health Awareness Week – with the national theme “Nature is Key”. To mark the week, staff members from across the University have kindly agreed to share their own mental health stories. In the first of a three-part series the Otago Bulletin Board hears from Philosophy Administrator Sally Holloway.

sally-holloway-image-large
Philosophy Administrator Sally Holloway believes it is important that people talk about mental health. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

When Sally Holloway tore a muscle in her lower ribcage four years ago, she never imagined the injury would set her on a spiraling journey into anxiety – leaving her fearful of social occasions and even afraid of going to work.

The Philosophy Administrator is one of three staff members sharing their stories with the Bulletin for Mental Health Awareness, which runs from 9 to 15 October.

“I am sharing this because I think it is important that people talk about mental health, it comes in all shapes and sizes and people need to be aware of what can happen to people who are suffering from it,” she says. “It is a debilitating condition and can be devastating to many people.”

"I had every test under the sun, all came back ‘normal’ but at this stage, nothing was going to convince me that I didn’t have some life threatening disease..."

Mrs Holloway has been working at the University since 1986, first as Departmental Secretary in the Department of Economics, and from 1995 in her current Philosophy role.

While she acknowledges that a torn muscle is a very strange catalyst to anxiety, she says that when the pain began, she didn’t know what was causing it.

“For years no professional could tell me what was wrong, and my anxiety began and grew at a very fast rate. I had every test under the sun, all came back ‘normal’ but at this stage, nothing was going to convince me that I didn’t have some life threatening disease, such as lung cancer, bowel cancer, stomach cancer and the list goes on. I felt that my body was literally shutting down.”

After several years of dealing with this, she visited a holistic osteopath – who told her exactly what she had done to her ribs and helped her onto the slow, and ongoing, process of healing.

However, until a diagnosis her anxiety had grown to the point where she was fearful of social occasions, of leaving the safety of her home and even of going to work.

“I would have anxiety attacks before I went out anywhere and it was a real struggle. At this stage I wasn’t even getting excited about my pending holiday to see a girlfriend in Australia.”

"I would have anxiety attacks before I went out anywhere and it was a real struggle."

She says she finally decided she couldn’t live like this anymore and along with seeing the osteopath, she also sees a psychologist once a week and has discovered things that she had bottled up over many many years.

“Yes I had ripped my rib muscles but actually that wasn’t the problem,” she says. “It was a catalyst. I have also started taking medication, and within a few weeks I started noticing the calmness in my body and mind.

“Excitement started for my holiday. I have just come back.”

During the course of her journey, she says her Department was extremely supportive.

“I couldn’t have asked for more from them. They are always caring and here when I need them, and if I am having a bad day, they are insistent that I go home and recover and come back to work when I’m ready. They are always asking how I am and if they can do anything for me, even out of hours.”

In March this year the University created a new role aimed specifically at helping people to deal with mental health concerns in the workplace.

"It was great to meet Carina and talk to her about the problems that I was having. She provided lots of valuable information and it has made a big difference."

Carina Perner, joined the University’s Health and Safety team as an Occupational Mental Health and Wellbeing Advisor.

Ms Perner says the idea to have health professionals specialising in Mental Health on campus was driven by an increasing number of people struggling with mental health problems at work. Also, with the addition of the SSR process the University wanted to take action and offer additional support for employees.

“Since March I’ve supported and advised a number of people around their own mental health or given professional input advising managers and/or HR around how to support someone with a mental health problem at work,” Ms Perner says.

And she believes her presence has had an impact.

“It has made a difference in terms of trying to make everyone understand how it can be for someone suffering from depression or anxiety for example, and therefore supporting the employee and their manager to implement possible accommodations during difficult times.”

Mrs Holloway says having someone in this position is wonderful.

“It was great to meet Carina and talk to her about the problems that I was having. She provided lots of valuable information and it has made a big difference."

"I hope that people with mental health concerns reach out to someone as life doesn’t have to be a living nightmare, and there are things that can make it better so that life can be rewarding again."

Her advice to Managers and those dealing with mental health concerns is to ask questions and provide support to the person dealing with mental health.

“This could be just talking or getting vital information to give to the person. This can be enough to prompt a person to go and get help, even if it is just to their GP in the first instance. Providing them with a safe environment is also so very important as fear can become very real.”

For her own wellbeing she says she still has a long way to go, but now feels as if she can cope.

“I am starting to care about me as a priority and deal with things that started this process rather than others taking first place. I have to say here that also if I didn’t have a supportive husband, life would have been even harder and I thank him for that.

“I hope that people with mental health concerns reach out to someone as life doesn’t have to be a living nightmare, and there are things that can make it better so that life can be rewarding again. People also need to acknowledge that Mental Health concerns are a real problem, it isn’t in someone’s mind.”

Mental Health Awareness Week – What’s on at the University of Otago?

Health and Safety and Professional Development Meet and Greet
Tue 10 Oct, 12noon to 1pm
Top foyer of the Staff Club
Please drop by and get more information.

HR Course: Maintenance for the Mind: balancing your positivity ratio
Tue 10 Oct, 3 to 4pm
We would all benefit from more positive emotions in our lives, but struggle to find the time to actively create more positive experiences. What if you could take a different approach, which allowed you to maximise the benefit from the positive emotions you already have? This workshop looks at the research behind the positivity ratio and provides an introduction on how to apply this approach for the benefit of your own wellbeing.
Make a booking.

HR Course: Campus Mindfulness Walk
Fri 13 Oct, 10 to 11am
We will first spend a few minutes talking about what it means to walk with mindfulness. Then we will get out to practise around campus before meeting up to talk about how we all responded to it. The Walk will start at the Centre for Innovation.
Make a booking.

In the future:

HR Course: Mental Health is Everyone's Business: a guide for managers
Tue 17 Oct, 9am to 12noon
Mental health is something we all possess, but just like physical health, we possess different levels of fitness at different times in our lives. This workshop looks more in-depth into the role of managers in supporting the mental health of their staff and in their workplace.
Make a booking.

Mental Health is Everyone's Business: looking deeper to support a colleague
Wed 1 Nov, 9am to 12noon
Mental health is something we all possess, but just like physical health, we possess different levels of fitness at different times in our lives. This interactive workshop is designed to develop a deeper understanding of mental health on an interpersonal level, and improve your confidence in assisting colleagues with mental health concerns.
Make a booking.

In conjunction with the Academic Leadership Development Programme, further training in mental health for leaders will be occurring in Christchurch and Wellington later in the year.