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Osher Günsberg: A matter of life and death and rethinking mental health

Something’s not right when your heart is beating three times a second for no good reason.

Kylie Smith thought she was having a heart attack. Again.

Pacing the house in these moments of panic, mind racing, the Sydney mum would fixate on the possible scenarios and then plan her funeral.

Was it a brain tumour? Why couldn’t she be normal for her husband and kids? And what would happen to them if she died?

“I could count on one hand how many times I felt capable of actually feeding my son a bottle,” she said.

“I had myself convinced they would be better off without me.

“I started taking bottles of alcohol to bed.”

Rush to the hospital – but ‘nothing’s wrong’

The day her heart rate hit 180 beats per minute, chest pain forced Ms Smith to pull the car over eight times on the way to her child’s day care centre, where she finally collapsed.

With every scare came the rush to hospital.

And every time, she would wait, anxious amid the beeping and bright lights of the Emergency Department, for doctors and nurses to check her heart and her blood pressure and her temperature and order more tests.

And every time they would say there is nothing wrong.

It would be nearly two years before a neurosurgeon pointed out that perhaps his patient was actually suffering post-traumatic stress and anxiety following the difficult birth of her second child.

Something clicked. Belief. Relief. A road to recovery.

Ms Smith, now working in mental health, is one of the faces of Safe Space, a pilot program in New South Wales giving people in crisis an alternative to waiting in Emergency.

Kylie Smith shares her mental health journey in A Matter of Life and Death. Photo: SBS

She works up the street from Blacktown hospital in a converted home decorated more like a friend’s lounge room than a clinic.

There are cups of tea and a massage chair and soothing sensory equipment. Visitors in distress can sit and talk to the casually dressed professionals. Or not.

It’s a stark contrast from a waiting room or ward where health teams are often busy dealing with people who have obvious trauma.

Triage usually doesn’t prioritise mental health patients even though more Australians die of suicide than by car crashes.

Self-harm and its solutions

Last year, paramedics around the nation were called out 22,400 times – that’s 61 a day – to Australians who had attempted, or were seriously considering, ending their lives.

More than half of the call-outs for self-harm were in New South Wales.

One young man Ms Smith recently helped to seek treatment for self-harm had earlier been ejected from hospital.

“Because he wasn’t getting seen or heard he did escalate…he was escorted out [of Emergency] by security,” she said.

Australians will meet Ms Smith in the SBS documentary A Matter of Life and Death, along with Safe Space patient Elise who tells host Osher Günsberg how she feared her children would be taken away from her if she sought medical help for intrusive thoughts.

“Being a mother your kids are your world…and then to feel like you don’t want to be here anymore… whenever I go through those thoughts it’s always a fight between ‘but I don’t want to leave my children behind’ but then ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’,” Elise tells of her “battle”.

Elise feared her kids would be taken away from her if she sought help. Photo: SBS

Günsberg himself is one of the millions of Australians suffering with mental ill-health. He knows he’s one of the lucky ones with access to psychiatrists, jobs including The Bachelor and Masked Singer series to keep him busy – and “people to cuddle” at his family home while in lockdown.

As crisis lines report record numbers of calls this year, and politicians face increasing pressure to invest in mental health, Günsberg is passionate about highlighting real solutions to the crisis that existed long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus.

That includes rethinking the nation’s approach to treating mental health emergencies.

“The problem with the emergency room… there’s only a blood and guts door – there’s no mental illness door,” Günsberg said.

Osher
ERs aren’t designed to cater for mental health patients, Osher Günsberg says. Photo: SBS

“If you are having an anxiety attack and you know you need help, you really need help, you end up in emergency being in a brightly lit room, packed with people … victims of traumatic road injuries or violence, bleeding from the head, it’s probably not a great place for you to sit.

“It’s probably a place you want to get the hell out of very, very quickly and then not get the help that you need.”

Ms Smith hopes the pilot program she’s helping to lead, funded by the Stride charity, helps address that gap in the mental health system and offers an achievable model for the future of healthcare.

“I’ve had many people say this place has saved my life,” she said.

“I wish there was something like this when I needed it.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call: 

  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for people aged 5 to 25)

Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death premieres at 8:30pm Sunday 19 September on SBS and SBS On Demand. 



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