Liptember helps kiss away the mental health blues

ALMOST lost among the cushions on the chocolate brown sofa, Louise Hudson stares out the finger-smudged picture window, looking at but not really seeing the garden beyond. It is still winter outside, despite the obvious enthusiasm of a few early blooms, and a blustery wind is making the acquaintance of half a dozen scantily dressed trees.

Louise shivers unexpectedly and clutches her coffee mug for warmth. It is one of those oversized made-in-China types showing off the pictures and script of the two children playing across the room. "Best Mummy in the World," it declares boldly, knowing not the struggle it has taken this 41-year-old mother to believe that.

"If you had told me I would get post natal depression, I would have laughed out loud," says the former banker. "We already had Jamie and had been trying for another baby for a year and were so elated when we fell pregnant. The pregnancy itself was amazing and I was desperate to meet my baby. But after she arrived I was just so scared of her.

"Everyone with post-natal illness has different symptoms and my main symptom was anxiety. I worried about everything and I just couldn't break the cycle. With Alice everything was different. She was a lovely and beautiful baby but no one knew how bad I was feeling. I can't talk now about the thoughts I was having, but they were so frightening. I later learned that a lot of women with post-natal illness have very scary thoughts. I thought I was going mad. I was having these thoughts, I couldn't sleep or eat, I was depressed, tearful and having awful panic attacks."

Louise finally sought help from her GP but it was well past Alice's third birthday before she felt as though she was herself again.

Her brush with mental illness was unexpected but is not uncommon.

Some 7.3 million Australians aged 16 to 85 will battle a mental health-related condition such as depression, anxiety or substance use disorder in their lifetime. These are mums and granddads, teachers, doctors, garbage collectors, managers and factory hands, policemen, pilots and childcare workers in large cities and rural outposts.

It is people like Ashley Erikson, 26, who had her first panic attack while at university and was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder shortly after.

"Up until a few months ago, my panic attacks mostly happened at night, and I would wake suddenly with one," Ashley said. "I had uncontrollable worries - some more dramatic than others - and was constantly tense and high-strung due to constant worrying. They can be different for everyone, but my panic attacks involved my heart racing, the feeling that I couldn't breathe and my throat was swollen, dizziness, and intense anxiety that often led to shaking or shivering. They lasted from five to 40 minutes.

"Now I can say that my anxiety disorder is under control, with the help and support of friends and family, running, medication, and health insurance. A lot of people who suffer from an anxiety disorder and depression aren't as lucky."

It is also people like Lisa Montgomery, a nutritionist who together with her partner is struggling to come to terms with the devastating effects of her depression.

"I was telling myself that I did not need professional help but I was in a downward spiral of denial whilst my partner chose to avoid the issue," Lisa admits. "I received a small lifeline from mental health volunteers who had given me leaflets on depression and anxiety, which contained information on how to broach the subject with loved ones. I realised that I needed to see a doctor and get professional help."

While mental health problems are equally common in men and women, the type and severity tend to differ. Women are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety - often in combination - and eating disorders but they are also more likely than men to seek help.

But asking for help is not without its problems either, with an alarming shortage of both in-patient and out-patient facilities across the country. The lack of money for care means there is very little going the way of research too, compounding a problem that is already taking its toll on society as a whole and making a financial impact on the health system and businesses in particular.

Those are some of the most pressing reasons that the work done by movements such as Liptember are invaluable to the people at war with mental illness and their foot soldiers who also bear the scars of battle.

In its fifth year, Liptember is the brainchild of Luke Morris, who with a group of friends saw the need for a female-specific fundraiser to help with the unique challenges faced by women.

The concept is pretty cool. Buy a brightly coloured lipstick from your nearest participating retailer, including Chemist Warehouse and Fernwood Fitness, and get your friends and family to sponsor you to wear it for the month of September.


But effective.

Liptember has already raised more than $1.3 million to help kiss away the blues. Most of that money has helped fund projects run by Lifeline and the Centre for Women's Mental Health at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne.

"There is a risk for mental health problems at different points in the life cycle," said Professor Louise Newman, one of the country's leading infant mental health experts and director of the Women's Mental Health Centre. "Women on the whole have higher rates of mental illness than men in some conditions, particularly depression and experiences associated with childbirth and hormonal changes. It is important that we take a broad view of supporting women at critical periods across the lifespan from young to old, including the crucial challenges of becoming a new parent.

"If we are serious about wanting to reduce the burden of mental health problems in the community then we need to prioritise prevention and early intervention. We need to look at early parenting difficulties, post natal depression, people who are going to struggle with their children, if we want to prevent those children having problems and trans- generational issues. So that's a big priority for our work at the centre, looking at interventions for early parenting support. We work to help the parent and the baby which is why the Liptember support is so crucial."

The progress made by the WMHC is felt across the nation, more especially in rural Australia, where services and facilities are less than adequate.

"The funding from Liptember and our other supporters allowed us to trial and develop the intervention approaches and then allowed us evaluate them," Prof Newman added. "We need to have proper evidence about this and we need funding both for development and rigorous research. So we are looking at interventions for vulnerable groups of women who have depression and anxiety - can we help them and support them in parenting, looking at intervention in pregnancy, can we get in at that early stage to prevent difficulties? It is crucial to look at these interventions, evaluate them and translate them into a better functioning health system."

Early intervention was also recognised as a key issue in the National Mental Health Commission's review into Australia's mental health programs and services. In its report, submitted to the Federal Government in November last year, the commission pointed to a lack of support and resources.

"The commission recommends building positive parenting approaches, resilience and targeted interventions for families from before a child is born and throughout their early years," the report said. "This should be done both on a population basis and with more intensive, targeted services for those families with emerging behavioural issues, distress and mental health difficulties."

The government has yet to respond to the recommendations.

It is not too late to grab your lippy and do your bit to help. See for more information.

Lydia Lassila at the flower ceremony for the Women's aerialists at the 2010 Winter Olympics, having won the gold medal SUPPLIED UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE
Lydia Lassila at the flower ceremony for the Women's aerialists at the 2010 Winter Olympics, having won the gold medal

Lydia Lassila

THERE'S is no doubt that Lydia Lassila is more comfortable with complicated aerial manoeuvres than she is with a tube of lipstick. But during September the Olympic skier plasters on a bright coral reddish hue and puckers up to help kiss the blues away.

Lydia, a freestyle aerial contortionist and the mother to two little boys, is an ambassador for Liptember, the colourful charity that raises money in support of women's mental health issues.

"I got involved with Liptember in 2010, pretty much from the start, because I thought it was a great thing to recognise that women have different and unique mental health issues. We go through different life experiences and a charity like this was definitely needed," she said.

"As an athlete I had some big setbacks and hardships and I know how hard it was at times to keep my mental health in line. You have to fight for your confidence, it's not always there - I normalised that behaviour and asked for help. I am the first to admit, 'Look, I'm not feeling that hot today', and I want to help other women do the same.''

Lydia, of course, is no stranger to success … or disappointment. The former gymnast took to aerial skiing with ease, finishing eighth at her first Olympics in Salt Lake City, but a torn left knee accompanied by agonising screams derailed her attempts four years later in Torino. Dogged and determined, she soared to the gold in Vancouver in 2010 and added a bronze to the collection in Sochi.

"People are slowly realising that mental health issues affect more than the person - there is a trickle-on effect for everyone in their family and workplace and the more we can support each other the less likely that someone will slip off the edge and that's what we are trying to prevent."