It ain't weak to speak

Susan is a landscape architect, mental health professional, author and mother who has teamed up with daughter Imogen to tell their story from both sides.


Sarah O'Donovan

Susan and Imogen are the type of mother-daughter-duo that can bring the warmth of a spring afternoon to a conversation taking place in the midst of a long Canberra winter. 
Between the anecdotes, metaphors and nostalgic retelling of Imogen’s childhood quirks, Susan’s life stories impart both wisdom and humour. 

With one discussion spanning YouTube wormholes, basketball personalities, obstacle course reality TV and the marketing potential of Mother Teresa, Imogen laughs at her mother’s meandering manner and fills in the details where needed.

She says Susan has always been this chatty and bright so it was clear when this changed that something was very wrong: ‘in the space of about 24 hours Mum became very subdued and almost not present’.

This was in 2004, when the family of expats returned home from Ireland. Shortly after, Susan and her husband Nick welcomed their second child, Naoise. 

‘Despite being an experienced mother, I learnt the lesson that you should go into all experiences with an open mind, rather than a set of assumptions, because it’s the gap between assumptions and reality that catches you,’ Susan says. 

She hadn’t given much thought to the possibility of developing depression after having a second child for the simple reason that it didn’t happen the first time: ‘I didn’t experience any post-natal depression with Imogen 11 years earlier despite difficult family circumstances’. 

So, while her eventual diagnosis was formally recognised as a result of childbirth, Susan believes it merely pushed what was an underlying condition to the surface. 

‘My father spent time in the mental health unit at hospital when I was in my twenties, so there was a long family history,’ she says. ‘What I’ve since learnt is that everyone has the potential to develop a mental illness, but everyone also has the potential to recover.’ She likens this potential to a seed in a garden, while it will suffer from too much or too little water, the right amount of care will see it flourish. 


These lessons have come after years of hard work, starting with what she describes as a ‘fairly dramatic hospitalisation’ just a few short weeks after giving birth to her son.

‘I just wasn’t feeling right, so my GP started me on medication,’ she says. ‘I had a positive reaction until I woke up one day and had…I can’t even describe what it was, [but] it was bigger than a panic attack.’

Susan consulted her husband and doctor: ‘I think I was hoping and waiting for someone to say I was fine,’ but instead she was sent to hospital where she spent the next two weeks as a voluntary inpatient. 

Susan, who holds a doctorate in landscape architecture, likens the experience of recovery to a building project. ‘Much like a project manager, I worked out what my plan was,’ she says. Sourcing the necessary tools (exercise, hobbies), products (medications), and professionals (psychiatrist) for the job, Susan says she wasn’t going home without them.

School-aged Imogen, who was staying with her grandparents at the time, was faced with a tough reality: the realisation that your parents are not invincible.

‘That was something I fortunately hadn’t been exposed to before,’ she says.

‘We’d been through ups and downs as a family in the past, but none had caused anything like this. For everything to fall apart, even temporarily, it was very confronting.

‘As I got older I realised a lot of people have family members with mental illness,’ she continues. ‘Depression can look like anything and anyone, it doesn’t discriminate.’ 

Having learnt so much in the years since, neither mother nor daughter were worried when Imogen started her own family. Imogen says having a great role model who showed her ‘it ain’t weak to speak’ equipped her for the anxiety of pregnancy and motherhood in a way nothing else could. 

susan 1

 ‘You need to accept help, you need other people. It’s the same with your mental health’


That’s not to say it was easy, but the family was prepared when Imogen and her partner welcomed their first daughter, and soon-to-be big sister, Harlow, two years ago. 

‘Mum and my husband were able to advocate for me in a way that I wasn’t able to,’ she says. ‘If I didn’t have someone who’d been there be-fore and I’d just gone home after one day I think there’s a genuine risk that I would have gone through a similar experience to what mum did.’

The family didn’t hesitate in arranging a few extra days in the maternity ward after Imogen was discharged, allowing her the time she needed until she was comfortable leaving. 

Susan says supporting her daughter, and anyone else, effectively is a matter of identifying their ‘individual needs and asking how you can support’. Whether support means sending a loved one a meal delivery subscription service, battling the traffic and the post office queues for them, or helping to tidy their kitchen, the pair says it’s important to ask your loved one what they need before offering help that might not be all that helpful.

Although she’s retrained and now works in mental health, Susan understands the difficulty of managing mental health in the construction industry. 

She explains that what pushes the industry forward can also be that which holds its people back, saying: ‘while it can be beneficial to develop a capacity to innovate despite tough conditions, such as physically demanding work, economic dependency and cost…your great-est asset in your day-to-day life is often your worst enemy because it can work against you too.’

She goes on to say that, while builders and designers have their own individual drive and creativity, they still need their team to take it from a vision and turn it into reality: ‘you need to accept help, you need other people. It’s the same with your mental health’.

For more information call 1300 224 636 or visit

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