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Struggle strength and survival

Sharing the harrowing details of two major breakdowns and a lifetime of managing anxiety can’t be easy, but Brett Saunders tells his story so others will speak up about their own.
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Brett Saunders is many things: an avid surfer with a perpetual desire to feel the sand between his toes and the water on his skin; a doting husband to wife Jenny and dedicated father to 10-year-old Bowen and eight-year-old Layla; a team leader of 20 years in the beverage manufacturing industry; and a man with a story of struggle, strength and survival.

Experiencing his first panic attack at just 12, the 30 years since then have been marked with ups and downs that have defined an ongoing journey of managing his mental health.

Brett’s path to recovery began at 25 when his panic attacks became a daily occurrence. Unbeknownst to him, Brett had been suffering from anxiety.

‘I should have been in my prime, but I was pretty much at rock bottom,’ he says. ‘I’d get the feeling that I’d done something wrong or that something terrible was about to happen. I’d get really short of breath and start hyperventilating, and then it would all go away as quickly as it came on.’

Not understanding much about anxiety or panic attacks at the time, his parents helped Brett seek treatment through a local GP and then a psychologist.

I’m building my knowledge in counselling...so I can help others when they’re not feeling their best

To begin with, Brett couldn’t quite connect with his therapist but he is a great example of how trialling different counsellors until you find the right fit for you will be worth the effort in the long run. Brett likens the experience to everyday life: ‘you can talk to 10 people in a day and out of those 10 you’re probably lucky to connect with four or five’.

However, Brett went away from his counselling with some great techniques and information, and it was enough to see him through the foreseeable future. ‘I learnt that my panic attacks were only going to last about 10 minutes so I just needed to find a way to get through it,’ he says. ‘I got a lot of tools to take away that helped make the panic attacks less frequent, but I was still having them because I hadn’t dealt with the issues that I needed to get out.’

As he reached his forties it became clear that the work was far from done when he experienced his second major breakdown.

‘I had a lot going on at work and I wasn’t talking about it to Jenny much, I was just taking everything on board. I suppose, being at 40, I was wondering what my life was going to be,’ Brett says. ‘One night I had a huge panic attack but I really thought I was going to have a heart attack, I couldn’t breathe.’

Brett’s concerned wife took him to the hospital where he says everyone, himself included, soon realised he was suffering from anxiety. He recounts the evening he wound up in the emergency room with vivid detail, a turning point in his life he might never forget.

Brett and his wife Jenny
Brett and his two children Bowen and Layla

‘I went away from that knowing I needed to do something, I made the decision to say “enough is enough, I need to do something about this”.’

The timing of that incident coincided perfectly with a workplace initiative about improving employees’ mental health which launched a week later. It gave him the courage to sit down and talk candidly to his wife about his history with anxiety.

‘That was a really difficult conversation to have, it was probably one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had to have, but since that time Jenny has been my absolute rock,’ Brett reveals. ‘She has given me the right amount of space and support to let me understand my own mental health and how to get it back on track.’

Setting out to find professional help, he was ‘lucky enough to find a great connection with the second therapist [he] tried’. This connection spurred an introspective look into his anxiety, his identity and how his formative years had impacted them both.

‘I learnt that I needed to find who I was and what I wanted to do in life because all through school I was just in a mode of survival to get through it. I felt that I’d missed out on discovering who I was because I had been focused on getting through the day to day and then, after school, life turned into life.’

Digging deep, Brett soon came to find there were some areas of his life he’d been neglecting.

‘I fell back in love with surfing, which was something I’d done when I was younger. Now that’s where I need to be when I’ve had a stressful day,’ he continues. ‘If I go down for a swim or a surf it’s like a reset.’

If I go down for a swim or a surf it’s like a reset

Also realising he wanted to pursue further studies, both to engage his mind again and to expand his future prospects, Brett went on to complete a diploma in leadership and management, and is now undertaking a degree in counselling.

‘I’m building my knowledge in counselling around behaviours and feelings so I can help others when they’re not feeling their best,’ he says. ‘I needed that knowledge for myself, but I’d like to be able to combine that with my leadership skills in the future.’

He also found some reprieve in the Beyond Blue online community, a space where people come together to communicate and share their experiences and support.

‘I’ve always been community minded, and felt that you need to contribute to society and give back, so I joined the Beyond Blue online forum. There are all types of people on there with lived experiences who you can talk to.’

While it hasn’t been an easy journey, Brett says with goals ahead of him and a robust system in place to manage his wellbeing, he is all the better for it. And, like others in recovery, he urges those who are struggling to reach out.

‘With mental health you have to tell people what you’re thinking, it’s very difficult and confronting but you won’t get better by being silent. It’s a really personal thing, but the only way to deal with it is to speak about it.’

Information and resources 

HIA and the HIA Charitable Foundation have teamed up with Beyond Blue to provide resources to help people manage their mental health in the building industry. HIA understands the stigma surrounding mental health and is offering members the best tools to tackle this issue head on.

Find more information and resources on managing mental health, including fact sheets, checklists and videos.

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 at any time and speak to someone who can help you.

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