Updated: Nov 28, 2019

Katie Brebner Griffin is a Melbourne based multidiscipline artist, writer and gendered violence advocate. She appeared in ABC TV's most recent season of the documentary You Can't Ask That, answering questions about sexual assault. She is a registered nurse, studying a Master in Public Health whilst exploring survival in her creative work at @ohkdarling.

CW: This article discusses themes of mental illness, suicide and sexual assault. If this article brings up anything for you, you can reach out to www.beyondblue.org.au 1300224636 or www.lifeline.org.au 131114.

1. What is your personal experience with mental illness?

I’ve had an anxious disposition since I was young. I experienced separation anxiety when I began school and panic attacks when I finished high school. I had a depressive episode in my second year of undergrad university studies which was my first experience of clinical depression. I was raped before my final year of undergrad which lead to developing post-traumatic stress disorder. I became the mental health triathlete with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I experienced an acute crisis of these conditions and attempted to end my life in 2015 in my first year of working as a paediatric nurse. It has taken the years since then to recover, and I still am recovering in a lot of ways. I manage both mental and physical conditions and I’m in good health now.

2. What did you know about mental illness growing up? 

Mental health was taken very seriously by my parents, and I knew there was depression in our family. My parents got me support from psychologists when I needed it and taught me the importance of asking for help. I saw how complex mental health can be in a family dynamic. I was aware that my grandparents were more uncomfortable about discussing mental health than my parents were. I was lucky to have the knowledge that everyone was trying their hardest to do the right thing as a parent, spouse or sibling.

3. What was your experience seeking and receiving help within the Australian healthcare system?

I’m very privileged, I’ve had timely access to care when most people don’t through private health insurance. I’m also a very literate participant in that system having studied nursing and psychology, then having worked in the system. I have known how to ask for help in a way that would be meaningful to the healthcare system. As a health professional there is an empathy from your treating professionals, as they understand themselves what you can see in your job.

You would expect my circumstances would dictate that I’ve had great psychiatrists, psychologists and treatments. When I haven’t been in crisis or been vulnerable, this was my experience. 
However, is when I most needed the mental healthcare system to protect me, I was failed by it. Wires were crossed in my care and I nearly lost my life as a result. It has taken a number of years to reconcile with that. Our system is inherently flawed and too reactionary. We as a nation should be caring for people before they are at crisis point, and desperately need better structured public crisis supports.

4. Can you tell us a bit about your experience being in a psychiatric hospital?

Being in a psych hospital was an important part of recovering from attempting suicide for a variety of reasons. It was also a time where the love between the people closest to me was at its most raw. I got to witness the pain that suicide, or its attempt, inflicts on those you care about the most. It felt unbearable, but there was no option other than to bear it. I had to face up to every deep-seeded, toxic views I had about myself that had led me to being in hospital. I was so disconnected with the extent of my self-hatred. I learnt how to stop burying my feelings about difficult things that I had experienced and to stop seeing those experiences as proof of being a terrible person who was being punished.

Having treatment in hospital was a vital step in me working to dismantle the perfectionistic, rigid and toxic way I had come to view the world and how I belonged in it. I stuck to myself in hospital, I’m not the type of person who makes friends in that kind of environment, as I needed to focus entirely on my own recovery. I was so fortunate to be able to be in a private hospital which wasn’t interstate and knew where I was going to live after admission, unlike some of the other patients. Some of the smallest but most important acts of love from my family happened when I was in there, which helped me build a much more loving and healthy way of seeing my place in the world.

5. How does your mental illness influence/affect your art and vice versa?

I’d always drawn as a kid, until I was about fourteen when I became furious that I wasn’t perfect at it. When I was in hospital, I started doing creative things again through art therapy. So, in a practical sense, it got me back into doing art again. Art practice is a vital part of maintaining good mental health. It’s an outlet for my emotions, as contradictory and complex as they are sometimes. My personal work is always through the lens of my experiences, a part of which are mental health conditions.

6. What is your experience having mental illness and being self-employed/having your own business?

Making the decision to start a small business when I did was much more about doing what I was capable of at the time, rather than a strategic business decision. Just deciding to start really tested the negative beliefs I held about myself and what my value was. Putting artwork out into the world, then have people want to pay for it, has been one of the best ways to prove the toxic beliefs wrong. People can unfortunately seek to take advantage of artists. I’ve learnt to value - and defend - my own skill and time. Fluctuations in my symptoms means I’ve learnt to manage my workload, and only take on an amount that isn’t going to be exhausting in conjunction with my other commitments. 

7. What have you implemented into your daily life to manage/combat your mental illness?

I have endometriosis and fibromyalgia, which I try to manage as they can trigger my depression. I try to eat well, which for me means actually abiding by my lactose and fructose intolerance restrictions most of the time. I exercise regularly and I notice the difference in my pain and mood for doing it. I’m doing a charity fun run and it’s been really wonderful seeing what my body is capable of, as I’ve been so aware of what it doesn’t do so well. The most important thing I do is commit to trying my best to looking after myself, not doing things as a punishment. That means when I’m not able to do something, respecting my limitations and doing something else manageable. On the flip side, it also means calling myself out on my own bullshit and identifying when I don’t want to do something because it will be uncomfortable, rather than I’m unable to do it.

8. Do you have any advice or tips & tricks for anyone who might be dealing with mental illness?

I know what’s working for me; and that’s been to do the work. I see a therapist who understands me well. I eat a diet that helps my body manage the hand it’s been dealt. I move my body. I use my brain by learning new things. I try to get the rest I need as well as the sleep I need. I’m honest about how I’m going with those who support and love me. If you’re not making progress with a psychiatrist or psychologist, change to someone else. I wish I’d trusted my gut and done it when I’d needed to. Also don’t be afraid of getting better, even though it can be daunting if you’ve struggled for a long time. Life is chaos anyway, you may as well have a shot at the life you want for yourself.

Interview and photographs by Samantha Moss artwork by Katie Brebner Griffin.

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