Home Individuals › Sarah


WW Sarah Gordon image 1

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.

Good reads

simon2 resized 2019

Positively bipolar


Simon Davis-Oakley enjoyed his life as a self-employed web designer and programmer... Read more

Magdel Hammond LMLM 2014

A different attitude to illness


Moving to Aotearoa was like shifting to “absolute paradise” for Magdel Hammond.... Read more

Richard anderson 6x4

Schizophrenia is part of my story


Schizophrenia is potentially the most stigmatising of all mental illness diagnoses. Despite... Read more

Minnie Baragwanath

Lessons on being who you are


Minnie Baragwanath is chief executive and creator of the Be. Institute, a... Read more

Hazel Guyan

Beautiful identities don't judge


University of Canterbury graduate, Hazel Guyan, is an inspiring young woman. Read more

Eric Biddington image

Album takes note of stigma


A project that brought together the musical and writing talents of two... Read more

Debbie Siau crop6x4

Debbie's journey to positive energy


When Debbie Siau was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she thought her... Read more

jo ashcroft 2014 marathon

Loving the bipolar label


To those who don’t know her, Jo Ashcroft is the “bipolar lady”... Read more

Lance Elliott

Personal experience inspires hope


Wellingtonian Lance Elliott has lived with schizophrenia for more than 20 years.... Read more


Poets stand against stigma


Rapper and performance poet Chris McMurray is drawing on his personal experiences... Read more

Andrew Serjeant image 1a

Art, stigma and other things


Some people spend all their spare cash on vices. Artist Andrew Sarjeant... Read more

Tamihana 2

Dancing out of the dark


When Kapiti dancer Tamihana Paurini experienced depression, he would not accept stigma... Read more

Shane and Joanna LMLM 2012

Living with someone who has a mental illness

Shane and Joanne

Everyone except their doctor said it couldn’t work, two people with bipolar... Read more

Rugby black and white person sport competition

A brush with mental distress


Pita Alatini says his brush with mental distress after being dropped from... Read more

WW Sarah Gordon image 1

Lifting the barrier for those battling mental illness


Between stints in psychiatric care and hiding her diagnosis from friends, Sarah... Read more


Takatāpui part of the whānau


By speaking up and challenging his own, and others, long held beliefs,... Read more

hand microphone mic hold

Student's speech breaks down barriers


“ARE YOU NUTS??!!! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU??? So you’re CRAZY then!?” So... Read more

Kirsten Wong image 3

Shutting down discrimination 


Being an inaugural Like Minds, Like Mine ‘PODder’ is a very exciting... Read more

Rob image 2

Black comedy fights depression


There are not many people who have the ability to turn a... Read more

HYTMNW RachelRoss

Have you tried, maybe, not worrying?


2015 media grant fellow Rachel Ross was 22 when she became aware... Read more

Caitlin image 2

Thriving, not just surviving


Nineteen-year-old POD participant and Auckland University statistics student, Caitlin Smart, remembers her... Read more

Helena 4

Sharing experience gives others hope


“The advice I would give my younger self is – keep your... Read more

Natalie pexels photo

The Mindful Minute Challenge


Natalie Lanfear has lived with mental distress for ten years, although the... Read more


From China to NZ: A mental health journey

Sue's story

*Sue packed up her family’s life in China more than a decade... Read more

Brightside pexels photo 192997


The benefits of having experienced mental illness

It feels almost flippant to be talking about the benefits of having... Read more

Annie mychillybin100017 86 Small

Discrimination from friends hard to handle


Annie (36) is frustrated with her friends after an episode of mental... Read more

Joan of arc

A cacophony of creativity

Nine hear voices

Almost 600 years ago an illiterate, French peasant girl rose to prominence... Read more

Te Ariki LMLM 2012 cropped

Out of the darkness and into the light

Te Ariki

As the warm sunlight streams in through the window behind Te Ariki,... Read more

Editorial news media image 2


Why the media matters

Research indicates that uninformed media coverage of mental distress can contribute to... Read more