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Speaking with Jake Russell, you're immediately put at ease by his relaxed and jovial nature; the 30 year old is outgoing, sporty and good with his hands – a qualified cabinet maker by trade. His general demeanor makes it hard to imagine that he has battled with mental health issues for most of his life.
This first impression may be the reason so many young men, just like Jake, slip through the cracks - their well-worn exterior covering underlying stress and emotional anguish. But it is this very stigma surrounding speaking up about mental health issues that Jake is keen to dismantle by sharing his story.
'There is a dangerous culture in young men where we are encouraged to put on a brave face, toughen up and soldier on. But on the contrary, it takes a lot of strength and courage to ask for help,' Jake says, thoughtfully.
When he was only six years old, Jake's parents separated, leaving him and his two older brothers confused and upset. Despite his parents' lack of animosity, Jake's dad became distant and removed from much involvement in his sons' lives.
'He wasn't really present,' Jake recollects. 'He would visit infrequently. He was engaged to another woman at the time and was really starting to focus on his new family. It felt like we were being left behind.'
On the brink of starting high school, Jake experienced the unimaginable – his father was killed in a collision while driving rigs back to Melbourne from South Australia. A former tradie, Jake's dad had taken to driving trucks. Sadly, in the early hours of the morning, his truck was clipped, causing it to veer off the road – killing him on impact.
'When I heard, it was impossible to make sense of it. My mum was pretty distraught; she knew how it would affect us,' he explains, 'My brothers were older, 14 and almost 17 respectively at the time, so they were in shock more than emotional. I guess they thought they would need to fill the void and take on more responsibility.'
This tragedy was a turning point for Jake, who was already feeling conflicted and angry – blaming himself for the circumstances surrounding his parents' separation, the addition of his father's death plunged him into a spiral of despair. ‘I was always so afraid, and I hid behind my anger - a subconscious response to trying to regain a sense of control. The irony being that when you give into anger you relinquish what little control you have left.’
It was never revealed who was responsible for his father's death, so without this closure, Jake created his own narrative. 'Shortly after Dad passed away, I somehow decided it was all my fault,' he confides. 'If I hadn't been around, things wouldn't have turned out this way. Which in retrospect is nonsense, but it became a foundational belief at the time - a kind of guilt. Then the self-loathing followed.'
Plagued by the fear of losing more people, Jake began shutting himself off from others. Jake felt that if he could reduce how much he cared about people and them about him, he could mitigate any pain it would inflict on them if something were to happen to him. ‘I didn't want them to feel like I did when dad died.’
While on the surface Jake was a curious and energetic adolescent, beneath he was hiding this inner conflict. He felt alone, but his need to separate himself from those around him caused him to lash out in anger. 'There was so much I couldn't understand. I felt like I couldn't ask questions and like I had no one to ask anyway. I remember feeling angry and so alone. It was a pretty negative feedback loop.'
Then in his early teens, Jake's thoughts turned sinister. 'Every single time I attempted something, it just felt like an incredible amount of effort for very little payoff,’ Jake continues. 'It was insidious in nature, but I started thinking, I just can't do this anymore. If I'm going to be around for another 60–70 years, and if this is all I've got to look forward to, then why bother? I don't want to be here.'
After attempting to take his life, he began the painful journey to address the harmful emotions he was harbouring. After several poignant events, Jake spoke with both his mother and brother, deciding that therapy was worth trying.
'I wasn't sure about therapy before going, but I knew how I was feeling wasn't ok, and I really wanted to get help.' Jake admits, 'I wasn't under any illusion that guided therapy would be a cure but felt it was a step in the right direction.'
Jake began the slow process of dissecting his thoughts and feelings – trying to piece it together and make sense of it all. ‘I had to be prepared to get really honest because if you're not, then it's not going to work.’
Aside from his ill-conceived idea that he was at fault for the turn of events leading up to his parents' separation and father's death, he had also manifested a distorted image of a father figure – an oppressive persona that harshly judged Jake's achievements and perceived failures.
'I didn't really have a reference point for what a father figure should be – so I created one, and it was pretty much a tyrant,’ Jake describes. ‘It was a case of if you do the wrong thing, you were stupid, you were an idiot, and you weren't worthwhile. Whereas if I did achieve something, there was no acknowledgment or praise – just an assumption that that was what you were meant to do.'
During the weekly therapy sessions, Jake realised that the constant barrage of negative inner dialogue was a psychological battle that he could never win. ‘It took me a long time to realise that what happened to dad was an accident and I wasn’t to blame.’
Over the next two and a half years, Jake began to develop the skills to carry his mental load and the tools to move beyond his anguish. His experience has left him with a profound feeling of responsibility to normalise talking about feelings and seeking help. 'I see it like this - you go to the doctor when you have a physical sickness, why wouldn't you go to a therapist for a mental illness? – at least that's my approach to it.'
There is no one size fits all approach to mental health and it isn’t always a tragic event that leads to depression or anxiety. It’s vital that we don’t measure one person's suffering against someone else's. ‘A person can drown in 2ft of water or 20ft – they still drown.’
Jake has found journaling and keeping active has been enormously beneficial, as has the addition of a four-legged friend. 'To start with, I would encourage anyone to speak up, then find positive avenues to get those feelings out. Speak to an objective third party - just to start the conversation.
'As an employer or friend - when someone entrusts you with their feelings, the reaction and first response should be compassion,' Jake tells. 'Compassion and empathy are so undervalued, but when it comes to mental health, they assist so much with acceptance and recovery.'
For mental health information, advice and support, visit Beyond Blue.