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Lifting the barrier for those battling mental illness

Between stints in psychiatric care and hiding her diagnosis from friends, Sarah Gordon thought life would only get harder after she was accepted into law school.

She was wrong. A meeting with a kind-hearted Otago University professor eased her worried mind.

More than two decades on, Cambridge-based she is still grateful.

"When I was accepted into law school, the dean told me if I was struggling, or needed time out, to come to him," she says.

"He said we would make it work."

That dean, among others who supported her through her studies, helped lift the biggest barrier to recovery for those experiencing mental distress: discrimination. He gave her a chance, rather than closing her out.

She has lived with a serious mental illness since she was 17. Following her diagnosis, she spent six months in hospital, where health professionals told her returning to university would be "unwise".

"I was really lucky my parents ignored that advice."

She went on to complete four degrees, one a PhD in psychological medicine.

Her family's support was a driving force behind her success.

"Their expectations about who I was and what I was capable of never changed. Their perspective was that given the impact of my illness I'd just need a bit more support to realise my dreams and aspirations."

Wary of stigma, she initially tried to hide her suffering.

"But my parents said: 'Sarah, unless people like you speak out, things will never change. So, step up.'

"And I did."

For 20 years, she has been using her experience to advocate for improved mental health services and societal perceptions.

She now works at the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago in Wellington, where she is an academic advocate for people with mental illness.

She has her work cut out for her. Mental health patients are not given the care provided to those with physical diseases, she says.

"If we treated any other group experiencing an equivalent type of distress and vulnerability [in this way] we'd be horrified."

In today's digital communication culture, connections built on pretence rather than real relationships are making the problem worse, she says.

"You might have 500 friends on Facebook, and you might feel comfortable sharing with them what you had for breakfast, but if you were experiencing some kind of real distress, how many people would you actually feel comfortable asking for help?"

The more we can talk about these things, the better, she says.

"Contact is the most effective way of countering discrimination.

"Everyone needs support of one type or another. We've all got issues."

Plus, she says, mental distress is "really common".

According to the World Health Organisation, it's the leading cause of disability worldwide.

"It's important for us to challenge attitudes and behaviours that are not okay. It goes beyond the people who are discriminating - there are a whole lot of bystanders who should be standing up and saying that's not okay."

Through her work, she re-lives her pain to ease others'.

She believes that with the right support a person's recovery is not only possible, but probable.

Her dean would agree, and cite her as proof.

Article prepared by Katie Kenny for Fairfax as part of a sponsored media partnership for the Like Minds, Like Mine Step Forward campaign.

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