A podcast sharing stories of lived experience with mental illness

Interview with Mental Health Advocate Michael Donehue

Nov. 6, 2022

Interview with Mental Health Advocate Michael Donehue

Interview with Mental Health Advocate Michael Donehue

Interview with Michael Donehue on battling depression and helping others

Michael Donehue is a mental health advocate, clothing brand owner, and national services manager for ADES Australia, which specializes in delivering education programs Australia-wide.

Michael is also an accredited Mental Health First Aid trainer who shares his story in detail about his mental health journey to help others, especially young men.

JOEL: How did you have the foresight to come about those crucial components in your healthy lifestyle?

MICHAEL: The one thing that always sticks out to me is that Gus Worland always says about mental fitness—which is so true—"if you go to the gym to get bigger biceps, or whatever it might be, it's not like you're just going to go to the gym once and you're going to have massive biceps, it's something that we've got to continuously work on."

And I've come to realize that since I started opening and sharing certain things, it's an ongoing thing. And I still find now that if I miss a day at the gym because I'm traveling for work, or if I eat a burger for dinner (because I can't be bothered cooking), it impacts me. I'm sure it's probably the same for everyone. But because I've been in a position where I've got to realize, I've got to work out what things work for me.

I notice a massive difference when I'm not doing those things. But I think for me, the one thing that I've really realized is that I haven't had a drop of alcohol for almost three years. It's coming up to three years now since I stopped drinking the first time to lose a little bit of weight and get back on top of everything.

Sleep is probably the most important thing. If you can have a good sleep routine—we're meant to have eight hours a night, but I'm sure we don't all get that—if we have our own sleep routine and we can stick to that as well as possible, it's going to make us make better decisions the next day, so get a good night's sleep. The next day, for me, is exercise and good food.

If I can keep those three things in check. I know I'm going to stay as close to 100% as possible, but like I said before, I can feel those things slip backwards a little bit if I'm not really focused on going after those three key things.

Why did you say that psychologists weren't for you?

For me, I just didn't find the right person. I didn't find the person I connected with the most. And one thing that I always say in the Mental Health First Aid training that I do, and wellbeing presentations and stuff like that, is if you have a bad experience with a doctor, or we have a bad experience with a psychologist or psychiatrist, there's another 1000 out there. 

But around the time when I didn't have that connection, I think the thing for me was that I'd realized that I needed that help, and I needed to talk more about what I was going through. And I started talking more to the people around me, like my parents, my brother, and my best friends.

And for me, that really helped with the other three things I've just mentioned. But also, looking after my medication and taking it regularly, those things were helpful for me. That's nothing against the psychologists that I saw.

But if I ever need medication, again, if I feel like I need to see a health professional, I would be 100% open to going and having a chat with them.

What can you say about your own experiences with alcohol and drugs, and how you perceive them intertwining?

The hardest part is it ties back in for me personally to the stigma side of things. Because if we're growing up in a small town, we don't want people to know what we're going through or if we're involved with a sports club, we don't want to be the one that's kind of an outsider, because we're not drinking or trying to fit in with everybody else.

But the thing that I've seen is that you've worked with so many different people, or you talk to different people about your own experiences and stuff like that.

For me, I was doing it to just escape what I was going through because I didn't feel comfortable sharing what I was feeling or what I was experiencing with my emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. I just thought that it was easier to drink to escape, but also to fit in with everybody around me. And I eventually realized that, looking back internally, it was always a people-pleaser.

If people said, "Oh, you want to go out and have a massive night tonight?", I'd say yes straightaway, because I didn't want to let them down. But also, I didn't want to be invited the next time.

I see certain things with my full-time work, I work with over 260 universities and colleges across Australia and New Zealand. A lot of the time, it's the first-year students who want to fit in or it’s the second or third-year students who are stressed or anxious because they've got an exam or an assignment coming up that they've got to get done. And they're drinking to try and escape that feeling that they're going through.

I think once I've realized that I'm here to pretty much please myself, as selfish as those sounds, without trying to be selfish. You've got to make sure that you're doing everything that's right for you.

And if you realize that alcohol or drugs or whatever it might be, what you're doing isn't actually having a positive effect on your life, I also realized that there's no shame in actually talking about what I was going through, and once I actually started opening up and sharing how I was feeling, I realized that I probably didn't need alcohol as much, and I started to cut that back and look after myself in those ways I was talking about before.

But the one thing that frustrates me, I think the most without the alcohol culture in Australia, is if you go to someone's house for a barbecue or an AFL Grand Final this weekend, we always ask the question, "Why aren't you drinking? But how often do we hear someone say, "Oh, why are you drinking?" It never happens that way.

So, I think if there are more people that aren't drinking as much or not drinking at all now, we can try and change that culture and, I guess, remove the stigma for people suffering from mental illnesses as well as those who choose not to drink.

What is Mental Health First Aid Australia?

It's one of those courses that I always say that it's not revolutionary because we know some of the things that we might be able to look out for. But it can really help the skills that we've already got and maybe tweak a few things about how we go about asking those questions.

What signs can we look out for? In what environment can we have that conversation in, just to make sure that we are noticing those things, and we can try and do everything to prevent getting into a mental health crisis?

But we're not there to diagnose, we're not there to treat, which is the most important message around that. What we want to do is notice those signs and link them to a health professional as soon as we possibly can, because we know that one in five people in any given year will have a diagnosable mental health problem, and that one in two people won't get professional help. 

Now, whether that be the stigma attached, or the fear of judgment, or feeling ashamed or guilty of what they're going through, or if it's just a matter of waiting, you and I can probably relate to this in smaller communities in Iowa.

Unfortunately, I had a really good experience with health professionals in my small town, but I've done presentations over the last year and a half, and I hear of people that must wait six months to see a health professional.

For me, as a mental health first aider, I can stand up there and say, "We have to do this, this and this." And we're going to get them into a health professional as quickly as we can, because it means their recovery is going to be faster.

It's beneficial to be familiar with those skills and to learn more about them. But, in the last 889 months since doing this training, I've worked with 850 people.

That training gives me a lot of hope in this space. Because I know I'm educating people from different communities, and whether it's with a university or a community group, or a sports group, and things like that, I know that they can take those skills outside of that environment, to a wider range of environments as well, and help as many people as possible.

What are your thoughts about mental health in the workplace?

For me, the thing that I've seen since COVID is that there seems to be a lot more people doing a lot more stuff to put time and effort into the wellbeing of their staff, because I think a lot of people have realized that it has been a challenging time and a challenging period for a lot of people.

Seeing the buy-in from different organizations and universities with their students for the wellbeing of their staff or just their small community has been amazing. I've seen more of a positive shift from the negative that we've had over the last three years, because they've noticed that they are struggling a little bit more.

And I'm not the one going in and saying "look, I've got all the answers," but I can share part of my lived experience but then also the evidence-based side of things as well for Mental Health First Aid that can give people some tips and tricks on what they can do to look after themselves.

It's always hard for me to gauge what they're doing on the inside from the outside. But a lot of organizations I work with, I've got an amazing EAP in place, so that the employees can access it.

They might be able to get six to 10 free visits, whether it be with a nutritionist, a mental health professional. I think whether it's mental health in an organization, overtime in an organization, or things without an organization, I think we can always get better.

I've noticed that with a lot of organizations these days, they are trying to get better.
Now, there are always going to be things that they might be able to tweak, but for them to put the time, effort, and money into their staff is amazing.

What are the most effective things businesses can do to help with mental health?

I think that the one main thing that they can probably do is just listen to the staff as much as possible, whether it's an idea that might be well and truly out there or a reasonable idea. I think the most important thing would be to take as much of it on board as possible. I know they're not going to be able to make all the changes or do everything that that staff member wants, but the more they listen to the staff, the more they understand what might be going on behind the four walls that we can't really see.

If there are issues or if some of the employees might be feeling a little bit disgruntled with what might be happening, if they're being listened to and they're putting things in place to try and help the staff as much as possible, that's one of the best things that they can do, but always go back to the small-town mentality thing. Growing up in a small town, it's probably the same with a lot of organizations out there. Damned if you do, damned if you don't know.

People are going to be happy when something's done, but people are still going to be unhappy when something's done. So, I don't think we're always going to be able to please everyone. But the more they listen to the staff and put programs in place, whether they think it's a waste of time or not, it just shows that they do care.

What are some of the triggers that lead to depression?

The most common ones that we've probably heard of were the ones that I was really experiencing: the isolation, the lack of sleep, or too much sleep, eating too much, then gaining weight, but then also leading to the severe spectrum of those suicidal thoughts. I look back at the life that I had when I wasn't really educated about this stuff. After doing the Mental Health First Aid training, I looked back and said, "I was living with this. I can reel off all these things.

The lack of enjoyment and activities, and then trying to escape with alcohol, all those things, were the things I was really experiencing daily at times.

And it was certain triggers for me that led me to a lot of those things. Like I said, with the Black Saturday fires, that was probably the biggest trigger for me and my mental health, which put me back to square one, because I was drinking a lot. And I thought, "What a lack of education." I've had two bad days.

I'm depressed. But now you've got to be in that window for two weeks or longer to have depression.
I look back at that now and go, "Where was I living like this for five years?" "Why the hell didn't I do something about it?"

But I thought, as a young kid, living in the country, having fun with my mates, that I was just meant to be up and down, no drinking beers. But then I look back at it, and the sleep, the isolation, the lack of enjoyment and activities that drinking now, they were the key things for me that I can look back now and go, that was depression. And I wish I had known a little bit earlier because I would have gotten help sooner.

What advice can you give to people who want to bring their mask down?

Find out the method of how you want that support to let down that mask and be vulnerable with someone. Whether it be a GP hotline or something like that, it might be that it's a mom or dad.

But all I say is find the person you feel comfortable with and that you trust that they're not going to go out and share it with the whole town, because we know in small towns, rumors and stories can travel quickly.

If you get it out there, once people know what you might be going through, if they start sharing, then you can start putting small steps in place to get back on top of everything.

Even if you feel ashamed of what you're going through or feel like you're going to be judged, find a person that isn't going to judge you. Just find that person and you can get that stuff off your chest too. And then start putting things in place, little goals, or little steps to try and get back to where you really want to be, because life is meant to be happy, and will always be, with adult challenges and harder hands.

But if we can put those things in place to look after ourselves, it's going to be one of the best things that we do.

Big thanks to Michael for sharing his story, and you can, too, by completing this form.