THe mental health oak tree

In Kenya, the oak tree is sacred. If it is harmed by humans then a curse is placed on the person who cuts part of it or uses it for cooking or heating. The consequence for this action will impact family members mental health. The oak tree must fall by itself.

From sacred to mad. If you do cut or use part of the oak tree, there is a torment for your sins resulting in going ‘mad’.

In the Phillipines, on Capiz island, there is a mythological creature as a devil playing with the person who is crazy. This creature is unique to the people of the island and is the answer to why mental illness occurs.

From mad to stigma. In Australia, one of the most frequent comments about mental health from those with a lived experience is that stigma in the community surrounds the conditions. And it does.

There are numerous pockets of our land that do not have their needs met because of stigma. My fear is we promptly finish the discussion because it becomes too hard.

In my last blog, I shared that we have post graduate students from varying communities exploring mental health together. We agree that stigma is different in each part of the world and impacts people experiencing mental ill health challenges, from socialisation to education to employment to daily functioning and support.

From stigma to education. This week, we have been exploring the concept of stigma and discrimination through our own bias, prejudice and stereotype about mental ill health and the journey of lived experience. We explored looking inward first and through the lens of people with mental health conditions before we can start to understand our own community views.  Education is power to take the path for community inclusion and wellbeing.

Although, this wasn’t necessarily true from the viewpoint of some folk in Columbia….

If you study a lot it is said that you become crazy as you don’t know what to do with all that knowledge.

Now that is an interesting one for all you academic boffins out there!

From education to support. In Malaysia, you go to the idols and figurines spirits for help as your first option in the hope that recovery will occur when you grow older.

The equivalent in Australia being identifying early signs and seeking early support.

Not too long ago, a woman I know asked if I could speak with her one on one about mental health. I said I was very happy to chat more, but could she give me more information. It turns out she has identified that there are behaviours she is experiencing that are out of character. Not being able to sleep, over worrying, tearful and withdrawing from socialisation being some of the signs.

I encouraged her to see a counsellor as I am a listening ear, but I am not qualified to provide support and strategies. Whilst dubious at first, she agreed to visiting a counsellor if I can attend the first session until she feels safe and can build trust.

Taking that first step helps to move from the fear of crazy to realising the importance of wellbeing.

Our mental health is sacred. We can overcome stigma by sharing our experiences and finding that someone to listen and help get early support. It gives us the freedom to take in the beauty of the oak tree without fear of judgement or consequences. 

anxiety, mate

This week we welcomed new International students on campus to study our Masters of Education, Special Education (Advanced) course. Many of the students have just arrived in the country. Our courses are post-graduate, with a mix of teachers and psychologists attending anywhere from the age of mid 20’s to 40’s.

One of the subjects the students are taking is the first of the mental health stream in the course and I have the pleasure of facilitating. We explore mental health conditions, the first being anxiety. As it turns out, this topic was timely.

Our class has students from India, Kenya, Malaysia, China, South America, America and the Philippines. Aside from introductions and information about the content curation and assessments that lie ahead, the rest of the workshop plan I had prepared went out the window. 

We watched a video of a guy named Paul. We filmed Paul on campus, he has a lived experience and it is a part of our co-design principles when developing our special education subjects.

Paul shared his story about being a policeman and his experiences with anxiety and the importance of mates.

The short videos finished and when I asked some questions about experiences he was sharing, all that could be heard in the room were crickets. So, we all took a coffee break as it looked as though energy levels were low and could be impacting the lack of response.

We changed tact and I asked the students if they had experienced times of stress and anxiety, naming that perhaps starting the course today may have been one of them. Then the flood gates opened.

Responses from each of them such as, “this part was easy! It was choosing a course, moving to Australia and leaving our family.” Or the “expectations on us to do well.” It is “the cost of living.” And “I have gone from the top of my profession at home, to cleaning floors here.” That “everyone back home thinks we are living the high life in Melbourne!”

Having opened a safe space to share, another student said she had experienced two significant panic attacks, she had never had anything else like this before, “two!” she said animated.

We continued our discussion about anxiety. What is the language used and understanding about the condition in your community?

  • In my country, they think there is no such thing
  • These conditions in my country, all fit under one umbrella, that you are mental.
  • There is no understanding about anxiety
  • If you feel worried, you should meditate
  • If your brother is considered mad, you do not want to say he is your brother
  • There were more services, but under the change of administration resources have been withdrawn
  • Often the doctor will give you a pill, but it is the placebo effect, the pill is a vitamin or something similar
  • If it gets really bad, they might go to the mad house
  • It usually comes out when someone becomes an alcoholic
  • The person is crazy
  • Or bewitched…

Insert my bulging eye emoji, that last point in particular.

I walk away and reflect. We have an important journey ahead, these students are pioneers, changing their lives so that they can change those in their country.

The next day, I welcomed the students again as they started their subject in learning differences. I asked them how they were. One student said she had slept a full night sleep, the first time since arriving months ago. “Now that I am connected with other professionals, in similar situations, I realise it is all worth it, I feel so happy now.”

Yes, the power of connectedness, a reminder of one of the cornerstone strategies for ongoing wellbeing.

It turns out none of the students could grasp the slang used by Paul in our video, which is why there was no reaction. The Australian language is very different to the English they have learned and so too the language around mental health conditions.

They did say my language is a step up from Paul’s aussie accent, which is a positive as our learning journey lasts 2 years. It still means I will be turning off my planned marathon of Croc Dundee and The Castle before next class.

Seek to understand …. and then take positive action.

Welcome to 2018. I wish you and yours sprinkles of gold as we glimmer in to a new year.

For the first post of the year, I haven’t planned to share reflections of 2017, yearly goals, or motivational and inspiring new year musings. Frankly, I have never been very good at, so I will leave it up to those who I know can!

Instead, I am going to mark a moment in time and celebrate the learnings that have brought me to the position I am in now. Colours Of Grey Matters moves into the 12th year of operation. The business name is a play on words to celebrate the amazing brain and the diversity it brings to our community. The purpose of Colours Of Grey Matters (aka COG Matters) was inspired by people in my life and continues to be by those that have a different way of understanding and brains that emulate nothing short of spectacular. I am drawn to want to find out more about how diverse neuro workings can be understood and celebrated in the wider community.

One of the people that inspired COG Matters in the early days was my first boyfriend. When he was young he had a terrible car accident and was not expected to live. He beat all odds and did survive. I am certain that it was in part for us to learn from him. The accident left a scar, not only a physical one with a smashed ankle requiring numerous hospitalisations and surgery, but also an injury that we couldn’t see. Nick had an ‘acquired brain injury’. A change in his brain because of the accident that made an impact to his life and those around him.

Nick had foresight that this brain change needed to be understood by loved ones and the wider community. Often, he would take me along to counselling sessions for me to understand the new workings in his brain. I attended as a young 20-year-old and it was very hard for me to comprehend. It did however ignite something in me. The need to listen to the person with a lived experience of a brain change. It was something we couldn’t see, so we needed to be in tune with his voice.

It is this experience that led to wanting to create platforms in our community for us to all learn about diverse brains and with this knowledge, to take positive action for widened day to day support.

This journey has led to learning about and working in the field of ‘neurodiversity’, Like acquired brain injury, autism and mental health needs are also hard to see and recognise.

‘Seek to understand’. Three words that a strong advocate in the mental health sector was renowned for. This to me is powerful and shares Jackie’s voice and those of the wider community. We lost this wondrous woman in the latter half of 2017, and those words can never be truer. Jackie set up platforms for success and amplified lived experiences. So that we must do …. seek to understand.

There are many lived experience voices of people that I have just met and those that have been in my life for years, from near and far that have made a positive impact on the direction of COG Matters. I can honestly say, I learn something new every day.

This week has been a good time to think about the worlds that brings COG Matters to where it stands today and my learnings both professionally and personally. It is also a good time to celebrate Nick’s voice in the first blog for the year, as it marks the week of Nick’s birthday and the week we said goodbye to him many moons ago.

For 2018, we continue to make the change, elevate the lived experience voices of people with neurodiversity, where we will ‘seek to understand… and then take positive action’.

I can’t wait to see what is in store for COG Matters this year for all of us. Here is to forever listening to increase our knowledge and understanding of the colours of our brains and those of others.

Until next time …..


Emma L. Donaldson. 12th January, 2018.

emma.donaldson AT