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Wellbeing warrior

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After overcoming mental illness and coping with the suicide of her plumber brother, this community nurse now supports and guides others who have mental health issues.

Liz Barrett

Senior Content Producer
For as long as she can remember, Carolyn Phillips has been known as a caregiver. Even as a little girl, she would help her mother to nurse her father, who suffered from chronic migraines and other illnesses. So it came as no surprise to her family and friends when Carolyn became a nurse. 

Energetic and happy, the mum of three seemed to have it all together. She was managing a young family and juggling the demands of study and work in the healthcare sector. But when her marriage of 16 years came to an abrupt end, Carolyn’s own mental health took a turn. ‘Initially, I was fine on my own,’ she says. ‘I had my friends, my work and I had my kids. I was involved in the local sports clubs. So I just threw myself into all of that.’ 

As financial pressure and solo parenting began to take a toll, Carolyn decided to work the night shift so she and a friend, another nurse and single mum, could share the parenting commitments. ‘I was able to earn an income and be there for my kids. I’d take them to school, pick them up and do their after-school activities. I thought it was a healthy situation.’ 
Carolyn and her husband in Vietnam
Carolyn’s blended family - children and grandchildren

Pressure points

Over time, Carolyn began withdrawing from her sporting commitments, friends and family. ‘I didn’t want to answer questions about my separation and divorce. The night shift affected my mental and physical health. I wasn’t sleeping well, if at all. I wasn’t eating and lost 10kg. I was having heart palpitations and terrible chest pains that would wake me if I was sleeping. A few times, I thought I was having a heart attack.’ 

As her anxiety attacks became more frequent, Carolyn would hide in the staff toilet to calm down. ‘I would wash my face with cold water, look at myself in the mirror and tell myself, “I can do this”. I began practising breathing exercises to help calm myself. I thought I could manage my anxiety and depression on my own but I was wrong.’ 

Overwhelmed and exhausted, she considered taking her own life. ‘I contemplated suicide many times. One night on my way to work, again, I thought about ending my life,’ she recalls. ‘I pulled over and burst into tears. That’s when I realised that this was more than just feeling sad and overwhelmed. I needed help.’ 

Carolyn saw her GP, someone who knew her circumstances. ‘I felt he would understand, and I could trust him with my secret pain.’ With the help of her GP and her children, Carolyn slowly began to regain control over her emotions and manage her depression and anxiety. ‘We had one of those Dymo label makers, and my kids typed the message “We love you” with their names where I could see it every day. I’ve kept that sticker. That’s why I’m still here. My kids saved me.’ 

Carolyn left her night shift role to start a job as a community nurse, something she had wanted to do since high school. She remarried and with her new husband, they now have a blended family. ‘I take each day as it comes; some are great, some not so,’ she says.
‘Together, we built a really supportive group around him to help with his recovery’
‘Together, we built a really supportive group around him to help with his recovery’

Her brother’s tragedy

During Carolyn’s recovery, her brother took his own life. ‘I put a lot of pressure on myself because I couldn’t drop my bundle at the time. My kids, my parents and even my nieces and nephews needed me.’ 

Her late brother, who was a plumber, had followed their father and grandfather into the trade. ‘My grandfather was a plumber, as well as my dad, my nephew and now my son. Just like my brother – all plumbers.’ Carolyn’s brother had taken her son on as a plumbing apprentice so the tight-knit family was left reeling, struggling to come to terms with the loss. 

‘I tried to broach the subject with him a couple of times,’ says Carolyn. ‘I knew he was having financial struggles and had separated from his wife, but just like most men, he kept his feelings to himself.’ 

Following this tragedy, she was determined to ensure no-one else she loved would suffer in silence. So, when her husband began to withdraw, she quickly recognised the signs and intervened to get him help. ‘Many people who are suffering are really great at turning it on. So people don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with you. That’s my husband – he usually jokes around but I knew he was struggling.’
Carolyn worked through the COVID-19 lockdown as an essential worker
Carolyn with her children

Recognising the signs

While many assumed Carolyn’s husband was just tired and run-down, she knew better. ‘He had to take time off, and if I left the house, he would get anxious.’ On top of that, his physical health took a blow. ‘He had cancer removed from his eye, followed by spinal surgery.’ 

Eventually, with help, Carolyn got to the point that she could go back to work. ‘I’m so grateful we have two terrific friends who would ring and check in on him while I was working. Together, we built a really supportive group around him to help him with his recovery.’ 

When COVID-19 hit, her youngest son – an energetic extrovert – began to slide into negative thoughts and frustrated feelings. But again, Carolyn was quick to recognise the signs and began to help him develop ways of coping.

Carolyn and her miniature dachshund Kransky.

‘My youngest son struggled with COVID-19. He used to study full-time and exercise but the lockdown affected him. He had terrible anxiety and chest pains.’ Her son began to focus his energy on his personal training business, offering Zoom sessions. This interaction and purpose shifted his feelings of defeat. ‘Young men are not immune to anxiety and depression,’ says Carolyn. 

Working as a community nurse, she uses her mental health expertise to support her patients. ‘I see people in all kinds of situations. Sometimes I’m dealing with vulnerable people at the end of their life. My job can be physically, emotionally and mentally draining. Even though I’m mindful of my own mental health, I’m aware that some people are not coping and need my support.’ 

The Beyond Blue Support Service is available via phone 24/7 on 1300 224 636 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3pm-12am AEST or email responses within 24 hours).