A Very Long Way: Surviving and thriving mental health struggles

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Naomi Fryers, author of A Very Long Way, was preparing to start a Post Graduate degree in Journalism when she suffered a severe nervous breakdown that left her unable to speak sentences. Left in the position of having to learn to communicate again, Naomi not only survived but thrived.

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oday Naomi is an accomplished communicator, using her thoughtful voice to advocate for mental health with an upcoming TedX Talk based on the power of storytelling in healing and, on World Mental Health Day (October 10, 2021), her debut novel, ‘A Very Long Way’, will be released.

Naomi Fryers A very Long Way

In A Very Long Way, a refreshingly open Naomi explores these inequalities and disparities as she shares her own journey towards recovery.  I believe Naomi’s hopeful non-fiction narrative is the story we all need to read right now. 

A staggering 45 per cent of our population will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime and there is a deficiency in the quality of care available. The ramifications of the frequent and extended lockdowns of the past two years are taking an enormous toll on mental health of both adults and children. This will see a significant number of people affected by long-term anxiety post-pandemic, resulting in further pressure being placed on a system that was already under resourced. It is also the salve needed to help reduce the stigma and discrimination that is still unreasonably directed at people challenged by mental health disorders.

“I feel like the stigma and shame around mental health challenges is breathtakingly counter-productive. Silence leads to increased suffering, fosters no understanding or awareness but is also a missed opportunity to educate on a universal struggle. The idea that my story can be used as fuel for hope in someone else’s recover journey encourages me to keep sharing and personifying the idea that on occasions life’s biggest adversities become our best lessons,” says Naomi, for whom storytelling has been a vital part of her recovery journey.

“The idea that if you have a story wanting to be heard, the world needs your message encouraged me to write this book. What I didn’t initially realise was that through the writing, reliving, contextualising and reframing my story’s narrative I would ultimately heal and grow,” she adds.

Naomi Fryers author of A very Long Way

Naomi’s journey

As detailed in A Very Long Way, Naomi’s journey to recovery has been by no means an easy one.  Some of her biggest barriers to recovery were systemic with the public system lacking trauma informed care and failing to acknowledge the vulnerability of particular groups.

“One of the hardest things for me was finding the right therapeutic alliance. I needed to learn to trust my doctor, feel safe to communicate freely and have her empower me to drive the recovery journey.”

It took years for Naomi to find the right healthcare team who discovered that she had been “chronically over medicated,” which complicated her recovery.

“They not only educated me about my condition, but encouraged me to recover through self-actualisation. I learned to play to my strengths which helped me regain confidence and get myself in the right headspace to come off mood stabilisers – which was a brutal feat in itself.”

These challenges led to Naomi working in a professional capacity advocating for progressive and systemic changes to the mental health sector.

“In my home state of Victoria, the public mental health system needs a rebuild. It needs to champion lived experience workforces in professional settings to understand the consumer experience. It needs to work on safety including combating gendered violence in mental health facilities. More resourcing and forensic beds are required. Current programs and inpatient facilities require expansion,” she says.

“Clinical teams need to honour minimal interventions and promote self-actualisation among clients. Trauma informed care needs further education and development. But also, feedback and review structures need to be more stringent. If staff have concerns about culture, treatment or systemic failings there needs to be open dialogue and resources available to address these issues on an ongoing basis.”

Parenting and mental health

Becoming a parent was perhaps one of the most significant events in Naomi’s mental health journey, with the adjustment to motherhood leading to severe post-natal depression and anxiety. But, says Naomi, “My son has inspired me to be the absolute best I can be. I know he deserves nothing less and he has proven to be a light force and massive catalyst for change.”

In turn Naomi’s mental health journey has played a part in her thoughtful approach to parenting.

“I think my mental health has added perspective to contextualise parental issues. I’m more mindful of the need for emotional guidance and support. I will always honour his wellbeing and happiness above all else. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I believe that if kids are nourished, feel safe, supported and loved – they will grow to a stage where they can overcome the challenges that life throws at them too.”

Practising Mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness is becoming a frequent addition to mental health care with research demonstrating it can assist in reducing anxiety and depression.

“I practice mindfulness through daily living tasks, but I am also committed to writing and journaling as a tool for mindset growth. It is an amazing way to process things, work through emotions and explore ideas as well as set future goals. Freedom of expression is something I believe is an important recovery tool,” says Naomi.

The practise of mindfulness manifests in different forms for different people but generally involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and practices that calm the body and mind.

“If people can do this creatively in a way that suits their natural skillset that can instil confidence as well. I am also intentional in nurturing and investing in activities that will serve me long term. I have come to think of thought curation as like gardening. I’m mindful not to add fertiliser to weeds when there are divine flowers to sew in that space.”

Gender imbalance and mental health

Women are nearly twice as likely to experience mental health disorders — almost twice the rate of men. It is a gender disparity that begins with social inequalities and living standards.  Research undertaken by the World Health Organisation (WHO) also indicates sexual violence towards women sees a correspondingly high rate of PTSD.

Naomi points the finger at the systems created by men and that inherently favour their rights. “We are still in a patriarchal society that dictates so much about how gendered roles “should be.” Many current psychiatric professors undertook training in an era that promoted outdated ideology,” she says.

“Too many women are still pigeonholed, and many people of my age group have new ideas about what gender diversity means and that those ideas aren’t necessarily divided along traditional roles in terms of community, home and society in general. I also believe in historical and contemporary society women are critiqued particularly harshly as well as having society dictate what roles are suitable for them.”

Gender discrimination plays a huge role in woman’s overall wellbeing with health inequity disadvantaging women across their lifespan. This has led to higher levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women and people of marginalised genders across every sector of society. It is an imbalance that Naomi is particularly keen to see addressed.

“Women aren’t represented by having voices at the table in terms of active leadership and decision-making. I believe in gendered leadership quotients. Women’s voices have been historically stifled across the board in terms of rights to access but also due to systemic inequalities,” says Naomi.

“To counter the mental health crisis in women our society needs to implement reform across the board- in political, education and health spaces. Adequate resourcing needs to be provided not just to help women escape domestic violence, but to nurture a society in which domestic violence in inherently unacceptable. Unfortunately, Australia has a long and complicated history that involves covering up injustice. While that remains the status quo we will continue to be faced with these issues for future generations.”

Seeking help

Recognising the early warning signs of mental illness is crucial to keeping a mental health crisis at bay.

“Noticing when your mood changes substantially, you are struggling to sleep, your thoughts are preoccupied or you are not doing tasks carefully can all be indicators that you are requiring intervention and additional coping strategies,’ says Naomi.

“Self- isolating is also a huge factor which can lead to alienation of those feeling vulnerable. It can help to list activities as a traffic light system as green for when you are coping, orange as an alert of a potential hazard and red as a crisis. If you grow accustomed to identifying your own warning signs this can guide you to seek help appropriately.”

It is vitally important for women living with mental health issues to let go of the fear of judgement and ask for help.  “There is no shame in your challenges. Struggles are a human challenge. We all face them. But truth tested by time dictates that a buried problem will not only resurface eventually, it has the capacity to grow. Being your own friend and lending yourself compassion to acknowledge you are struggling and may require guidance is the safest, kindest and most sensible approach to ensuring the future health of you and your family.”

Naomi is generously donating 50 per cent of sales generated from A Very Long Way directly towards the Black Dog Institute because she feels fortunate to be graced with survival that has allowed her to grow, recover, marry, become a mother, and contribute back to society. “It would be a missed opportunity not to help someone else who could potentially be in a similar circumstance,” she says. 

“I admire Black Dog’s advocacy across the board. But I am most inspired by their systemic work on suicide prevention. As a survivor I am always aware of the exponential cost of suicide. In terms of a life lost, shattered family, and community heartache. I am acutely aware that one flawed decision under duress can have devastating impacts.” 

Anyone needing support with mental health issues should contact Beyond Blue National Helpline on 1300 22 4636. For urgent support call Lifeline 13 11 14