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Stories from the frontline

Stories from the frontline

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If you’re battling mental health, Beyond Blue speakers Craig Killian, Peta Sitcheff and Tim Lacey want you to know you’re not alone. Their stories of challenge and recovery are recognisable, relatable and, ultimately, inspiring.

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content

TRIGGER WARNING: This article involves discussion on mental health and suicide. It may be difficult reading this story, especially if you’ve had similar experiences or supported a friend or family member. If you’re feeling impacted, contact Beyond Blue for immediate support, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Headspace, or your local GP for support.

A mental health crisis can play out in many different ways. For Craig Killian, rock- bottom took the form of a panic attack, masquerading as a terrifying heart attack.

Peta Sitcheff hit her lowest point when stuck in a carpark, without enough money to pay at the exit. Tim Lacey describes his as a ‘chasm that was just so dark and deep that I didn’t know a way out’.

Craig, Peta and Tim are just three of the millions of Australians who battle mental ill-health, depression or anxiety each year. While their defining crash-points were unique, these three all attribute their mental health challenges to common factors, such as workplace stress and putting too much pressure on themselves—combined with the widespread tendency to conceal problems behind a brave face.

Here, Craig, Peta and Tim talk about how they found their way out from rock bottom, and how they maintain the equilibrium.

Physio for the brain

‘When you’re at your worst in mental health, life seems so long, it feels like it could go for years and years. And there’s a time where you just go, I don’t know if I’m strong enough,’ says Craig Killian, who works as a trainer with NSW Health.

Craig’s tipping point happened after a lifetime of striving to meet an unrealistic image of masculinity. But even when crippling anxiety threatened to derail both his career and family life, he resisted reaching out for help. ‘It’s because you’re taught as a man to provide, not to take,’ he says.

When a GP eventually traced his physical symptoms back to mental health and referred him to a psychologist, Craig says making that first appointment was ‘the hardest thing’.

Craig Killan is a speaker and ambassador for Beyond Blue.
Craig spends time de-stigmatising the concept of mental health.

But here’s what he wants everyone to know: seeing the psychologist was a positive experience. ‘When I got there, he was just, “Hey, tell me, are you OK? He was a physio for my brain”.’

Several years and countless psych appointments later, Craig believes we should treat our mental health like our physical health. ‘My mental health is an injury that may last for a while. So, when you have a knee injury, you have to learn how to play around it. You have to learn what’s going to put stress on it. You have to learn what relieves it.’

Exercise has been a huge part of his recovery – he prefers the ‘functional fitness’ of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. ‘I found that when I was doing the treadmills, my brain could still drift off into the fog. With Jiu Jitsu you constantly have to be mindful. Your brain gets that relief and you’re physically getting that relief as well.’

Daily wellbeing strategies include being kind to himself and setting boundaries. ‘It’s that little bit more understanding of yourself, your own needs and taking what some would call a selfish approach,’ he explains, adding that his mental health is always a work in progress. ‘I like who I am, but I like who I’m becoming as well.’

Irene and Boris

Peta Sitcheff, who suffered acute burnout after more than a decade in an intense corporate role, is also a big believer in the power of setting boundaries. ‘I had no boundaries in place at all to protect what was important to me,’ she says of her time in medical sales. ‘There were no boundaries with my customers, my job or my employer.’ The business of achieving sales targets – getting the numbers – had completely taken over her life. And it almost cost her everything.

Since leaving the corporate world, Peta has focused on ‘redesigning’ her life.
The process of chronicling her mental health journey was intensely cathartic.

Today, Peta is still a successful businesswoman, running her own sales coaching company and online training program. But a ‘mindset shift’, which transformed her approach to work, has also transformed her life and her mental health. ‘I now recognise things in my life that might not be healthy for me, whether it’s work practices, habits or people. So, understanding boundaries and how empowering that is, I think it’s really important.’

Burnout was both physically and mentally debilitating for Peta. Her recovery was led by sessions with a psychologist, and by becoming a ‘relentless learner’ – reading extensively about anxiety, and how other people had overcome with their mental health challenges. Through knowledge, she built the tools and strategies to cope. ‘I’ve got this sort of repertoire of things I need to maintain from my wellbeing perspective to keep my anxiety at a manageable level.’

One of her most interesting healing strategies was to ‘other’ her anxiety by giving it a persona. ‘My psychologist asked me to visualise my anxiety. And I visualised her as this sort of 70-plus-year-old woman with wiry salt-and-pepper hair dressed in a purple cloak. I call her Irene.’ Peta’s son, who also has anxiety, named his ‘Boris’. Giving it a persona is powerful because you’re not judging yourself: ‘I have anxiety, but I’m not my anxiety.’

On a practical level, Peta says that channelling her professional skills into helping others has become a passion; a spiritually fulfilling career that gives her life meaning and purpose and continues to sustain her recovery.

Learning to be better.

Like Peta, Tim Lacey is passionate about helping others by sharing his pathway through clinical depression. ‘If I can just help one person, all this is worthwhile for me,’ he says.

A successful entrepreneur, Tim’s mental health started to decline when he was in his thirties. But even as he grew terrified of his own feelings and their impact on his family, he was also terrified of reaching out for help. ‘I thought, if I do something about it, I’m going to be seen as a weak guy,’ he says. ‘I thought maybe I’ll be institutionalised or drugged out of my mind on antidepressants. That was my thinking back then. I know different now.’

In fact, it was prescribed antidepressants that reeled him back in from the edge. ‘I was resistant to it all. And the doctor talked me into it. I’m glad he did.’

Tim realises that this reluctance to reach out for help is a common issue among men.
Tim’s story highlights the fact that mental ill-health can happen to anybody.

Along with the medication, Tim’s doctor encouraged him to talk: ‘I started to actually open up for the first time in my life about what was going on and what I felt, what I was thinking and all these things I’d buried deep for years. That began the unlocking process.’

After deciding to ‘be’ better – not just ‘feel’ better – he was able to tackle the long road to wellness. He’s developed strategies to maintain an even keel: dealing with issues as they arise; not letting himself get ‘too fussed’ about things. ‘Now I understand the value of having a chat about how I feel and to be vulnerable about that in order to help others.’

He’s learnt that when it comes to mental health, you must be ready to help yourself. ‘Nobody could fix me. I had to start on a journey and actually want to go about the recovery part. Nobody could do that for me.’ The important thing is that you don’t have to do it alone. ‘Organisations such as Beyond Blue will be able to make a difference in your life, if you can just take that little first step. It becomes worthwhile.’

Read more here about the health journeys of Peta, Tim and Craig.

The HIA Charitable Foundation proudly supports Beyond Blue. The HIACF are committed to the wellbeing of members of the residential construction industry. For more information or to make a donation, visit HIACF online.

First published on 14 March 2024

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