David, one of the National Disability Coordination Officers working on the USEP project sat down recently with Sally*, who is a fourth-year university student to chat about her life living, studying & working with a mental health condition.

David: What are you studying & why?

I am studying a Bachelor of Social Work. I had completed a Diploma of Counselling as I felt the calling to be a professional helper. Through that course my trainer who is also a Social Worker, encouraged me to go further with my training and explore this degree.

How did you decide that you were going to embark on the journey of studying at University – what encouraged you to enrol? Did you have any fears or doubts?

Encouragement came from within my circle, my husband especially. I had HUGE fears of embarking on the university journey.  I hadn’t completed high school, having dropped out at the end of grade 10 and becoming a student at the age of 35 was scary.

A from-behind photo of a student sitting at a desk with a Macbook and pad and pen.
Putting myself out of my comfort zone paid off.

My career was mainly customer service and administration positions, so I did question my ability to complete subjects at the desired academic level.  To say my anxiety was high would be an understatement but I knew within myself that if I was to help others then I had to put myself out of my comfort zone and this is what has driven me all the way through.

You speak quite openly about your mental health with the people around you and are a positive advocate in this space when it is needed.  When did you start discussing your mental health condition as a part of your life with others, and what benefits has this brought forward?

It has only been in the last few years that I became open about my mental health condition.  I have longed suffered with depression and anxiety, since my teenage years but it wasn’t until 2012 that I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Along with my fear of not being “smart” enough for uni, I also was worried about how I would go with my fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.  A benefit I have seen with being open about this, is that others who may have something similar or completely different feel better about their own conditions.  It is becoming increasingly common to be diagnosed with a form of mental health condition and I think the more we are open about it as a society, the stronger we can become in breaking down the stigma.

A photo of a blonde lady sitting at a desk with a laptop by herself, with a coffee.
Sometimes people are just curious because they can’t visibly see the disability.

What unintended or negative consequences have arisen from sharing this personal information with others?

While I have only received positive support within the study cohort, sadly this isn’t the case for others who have/are battling forms of bullying from other students and at times have received a lack of support from lecturers.  In a professional capacity outside of study, I have seen where being open about mental health conditions has incurred negative impacts. People become scared and judgmental, a lot of this stems from the fear of the unknown. This is where stigma is still very much present in our society.

What types of informal supports work well for you at Uni while you are studying & experiencing stress?

A solid support network for me is crucial. My network consists of my husband (who takes the lead in parenting when I am under pressure, but in also grounding me when my anxiety attacks reach breaking point!) and my family, peers studying the same degree – some of these are local and also in other locations – this is really beneficial for discussions around content and also just supporting one another during high pressure times in a semester. For me, supportive lecturers have been great. I have been very lucky and to date have had some awesome lecturers who will support me with what I need, whether that be extra time, or meeting for one-on-one discussions to clarify content, providing feedback and just being approachable.

A silhouette of a couple looking into the sunset, leaning toward each other.
My husband is my rock. He understands me and knows when to step in and support me back up.

You work full time and study full time now, and have fairly full on family commitments also.  What drives you to push forward?

For the first 2 years of study, I was able to focus purely on my studies, then last year I returned to work part time and continued to study full time, this did bring challenges but with time management and self-care, I was able to manage. Then this year I was offered an opportunity that was just to good to pass up and this now sees me working fulltime and studying fulltime, am I crazy? Sometimes I would say yes, especially having a family and 2 young teenage children who both have had medical diagnoses themselves in recent times. My eldest was diagnosed with Cancer a few years ago and my youngest is on the spectrum and has anxiety also!

A photo of an adult and two boys with helmets on, with push bikes on a mountain.
My son is aware he is on the autism spectrum, but he doesn’t let it define him.

However, my work now compliments my studies and I am able to put what I am learning into practice. This is what drives me to finish my study, so I can make a difference and also be a positive role model to my boys.

We’ve discussed in the past that sometimes you’ll discuss your mental health status with your employer, sometimes you won’t.  What’s the factor that makes you decide either way?

Goes back to fear of the unknown. Some employers I have come across get scared and think someone with a mental illness would be a burden and this would have the potential to hurt the bottom line.  For me personally, I also looked at the position and what the duties were, this would factor in as to whether I disclose my conditions. In my case, with my diagnosis being “invisible”, I had the opportunity and control of what people knew.

Has having this discussion with an employer ever been non-beneficial to you? Why?

One employer knew of my conditions when I came on board but during my time there, there was a change of management, I mentioned my anxiety to my new manager and I didn’t receive support.  I felt unsupported when I attempted to raise concerns and looked for other ways to manage tasks, ultimately led me to make the decision to leave.  I became depressed, had feelings of being worthless and not a team player. That decision (leaving) ended up to being one of the best I had ever made.


A blonde woman is pictured across the table from two managers, looking concerned.
I felt like I wasn’t supported in a positive way in the workplace, so I chose to leave.

What type of work are you doing now, and where do you see yourself working after you finish your degree?

As I mentioned, last year I was presented with an opportunity that really did resemble my “dream job”.  I am passionate about Mental Health and just as passionate about working with young people and helping them walk through life with a mental health diagnosis.  I now work as a Community Mental Health Practitioner within a Youth Residential Recovery Service.  This service caters for young people aged 16 to 21 years who have a mental illness and we work with them on a recovery plan to assist them in being a contributing member of society and building a life with a diagnosis.

It is a very big juggle – full time study, full time work and being a wife/mother/daughter/ sister/friend – but I am excited with the direction my career is heading.  These last 6 months have seen me in situations where I am able to apply the skills I am learning in my studies.  I am really keen to make an impact on breaking down the stigma around mental health and that is why I have chosen to not hide behind my diagnosis and I encourage others not to as well.  Our diagnosis shouldn’t define us, we are way more than a label and while in some situations we need the label in order to access supports, we can still have a fabulous life and career!

* Name and some identifiable details changed to respect the privacy of the individual and family.  Stock imagery in use.   Our thanks to the student for sharing your story.

To learn more about University Specialist Employment Partnerships, read our article about supporting graduates with disability into work.