"When I first started feeling down, I thought it was pretty normal."
Samuel Leighton-Dore

11 Oct 2018 - 8:39 AM  UPDATED 12 Oct 2018 - 10:58 AM

For Melbourne-based psychiatrist Dr Steve Ellen, hosting SBS's groundbreaking television experiment How 'Mad' Are You?  was an experience that hit close to home.

Not only is he a professor of psychiatry at Melbourne University and the director of the Psychosocial Oncology Program at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, but Dr Ellen has a history of mental illness himself. 

Following the death of his father and the end of a serious relationship, the author said depression "snuck up" on him. "When I first started feeling down, I thought it was pretty normal," Ellen tells SBS Life. "But then six weeks later I wasn't feeling any better, so I thought I had to start taking it more seriously."

Given his profession and work environment, it's perhaps unsurprising that Dr Ellen initially took a methodical approach to his mental health.

"Every night I gave my mood a score out of ten," he says. "I told myself that I’d get help if there wasn’t any improvement after three months."

Despite working around mental health professionals every day, Dr Ellen insists that his colleagues were unaware of his silent struggle - something he doesn't fault them for.

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"I think I hid it pretty well, I tend to deal with stress by going into overdrive," he said. "It didn’t surprise me that they didn’t notice it. I’m an upbeat person, nobody would have expected it. Afterwards when I told people, everyone was very surprised."

Despite burying himself in work, the psychiatrist says that he was forced to stop treating patients with depression until he was being treated himself.

"I didn’t see many depressed patients when I was depressed, because it just made me too sad," he reflects. "Even now when I see patients who remind me of that time in my life, I can cry in front of them."

"Patients don’t seem to mind," he says.

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"One of the things I thought was great for those who took part in the show (How 'Mad' Are You?), was that once you start speaking out about your mental health problems, so many people benefit from that.

"Once you show people that its okay to talk about this, it immediately breaks down that barrier and allows them to get help themselves."

Calling his depression "moderate", the doctor says he chose to seek help through psychological treatment, rather than medical - but that it ultimately comes down to a personal choice.

"We treat depression according to whether it’s mild, moderate or severe," he says. "For mild depression, we might recommend sleep, good nutrition and stress reduction, whereas for moderate depression patients might have a choice between anti-depressants or psychological therapy - or both."

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Exploring mental illness in a way never before seen on Australian television, How 'Mad' Are You?  is a two-part documentary series which sees ten Australians from different backgrounds spend one week together.

The catch? Five have a history of mental illness - five do not.

Aiming to breakdown stigma associated with mental illness, the volunteers navigate a series of specially designed psychological tests and challenges, overseen by Dr Ellen.

"I hope the main takeaway is that people break down some of the stereotypes," Ellen says of the series. "There are ideas that people who have mental illness are different to people without mental illness, but really it’s a scale, it’s a normal part of being alive."

He adds: "Stigmatising people is making a whole lot of judgement based on things that just aren’t true."

Mental health support services:

Black Dog Institute

Lifeline - 13 11 14 

Carers Australia 1800 242 636 - Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.

Headspace 1800 650 890 - a free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 - A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.

Mindspot Clinic 1800 61 44 34 - An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.

National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)

QLife 1800 184 527 - QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. 

Relationships Australia  1300 364 277- A provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.

SANE Australia 1800 18 7263 - Information about mental illness, treatments, where to go for support and help carers.

Support after Suicide

Source: Beyond Blue  

New series How ‘Mad’ Are You? takes a unique look at mental health. The two-part series premieres 11 October, 8.30pm SBS

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