Q&A With Mitch Wallis, ANZMH Association Ambassador

Say hi to our members, Mitch! Why don’t you tell everyone a little about yourself?

Hi Everyone! Like most people here, I am incredibly passionate about mental health. Obsessed, some may say. My lifelong mission is to empower others to overcome suffering and reimagine the healing power of the mind through the power of storytelling, community & technology. I’m 28 years old, born and raised in Sydney. I spent almost 7 years at Microsoft where I led some of the company’s biggest launches in Australia and the United States. I was flying across the world working on everything from the NFL, managing the partnership with Vogue, and even hosting private meetings with Robert Downey Junior. But life wasn’t the perfect Instagram moment.

I recently underwent an enormous life change and now devote myself fulltime to mental health advocacy & social entrepreneurship. After lifelong battles with anxiety, OCD, panic attacks and somatic disorders starting at the age of 7 which have almost taken my life, I decided to use my experience in marketing to help solve the single biggest issue facing my generation.

In May 2017, I founded what is now known as one of the fastest growing online mental health initiatives in the world - Heart On My Sleeve Movement. What started as one story is now a viral social media Movement that is providing a platform for people all over the world to remove the unnecessary shame of emotional suffering. Within 1 week, the Movement reached over 1 million people on Facebook alone. News outlets (including Channel 10’s The Project), celebrities & influencers got on board to support the cause. We watched in awe as individuals from across the globe wore their heart on their sleeve (many even tattooing it on their body), to inspire others and free themselves from their own demons.

In my spare time -  I’m a DJ, certified yoga teacher, boxer, meditation junkie, fashion tragic, pasta enthusiast, tattoo lover, writer and socialite. Family & friends are the most important thing in my life. I’ve visited more than 20 countries to-date, represented Sydney in squash, and completed the NY marathon. My proudest achievement is doing a handstand whilst beat boxing in front of Cara Delevingne in Brooklyn NY at 3am in front of a hot dog stand.

You’ve had your own struggles with mental health – how do you think this has shaped you?

I’ve struggled with severe & debilitating mental illness symptoms for most of my life. Starting from when I was a small child, I remember feeling that I was different to other kids. On the inside my life was foreign, messy and intrusive. I often felt sad and unsettled for seemingly no reason. My family had some history of mental health issues, so I was waiting to see what my “lucky-dip” would be. My uncle suffered from such intense anxiety as a teenager he found it difficult to walk to his driveway due to the severity of his panic attacks. My father has experienced bouts of depression and was raised in an abusive household. We have alcoholism and PTSD in our family tree as well. Coupling this genetic predisposition with some complex trauma I had been subject to in my very early years provided the perfect breeding ground for mental health complications.

I remember my first signs of mental ill health like it was yesterday. By nine years old, it took me half-an-hour to leave my room because I would have to touch a light switch 50 times in fear a family member would die if I didn’t. I was subsequently diagnosed with acute Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I didn’t know what that meant back then, other than “you are a crazy person”. I felt strange, alone, and guilty for causing distress to my own family. During my teen years, life on the outside remained normal. I attended parties, had a long-term girlfriend, and excelled at school. But as time went on, my mind continued to spiral. I started to experience random panic attacks and bouts of severe depression.

I began to feel incredibly strange sensations like I would lose control at random moments throughout the day. I felt like a stranger to myself. I remember taking a trip to Thailand just after high school, and I couldn’t leave the hotel room because I was so anxious. I was on holiday, why wasn’t I relaxed? It all got too much, and broke down to what I thought was a point of no return. I hit the ‘big red button’ and finally reached out and said “I need help”.

It has been a very long road, of which I am still walking, but I have made huge progress with the help of an extensive personal & professional team in learning how to manage my anxiety and other challenges. Resilience and will to turn this suffering into growth – for myself and others – has been what has got me to this point. It’s about seeing who I am as gifted, not cursed, and let myself whoever and whatever that is.

What do you think is the biggest stigma about mental health?

Stigma is something that is somewhat of a glass ceiling – we think things are getting better, but not fast enough. 75% of people with a mental illness still feel stigmatised by other people, which is a big number in this day & age. However, I don’t believe traditional stigma is the issue. Most of our focus is on changing the negative perceptions of what other people (outsiders) think of those who are affected by mental illness. However, the more important (and often damaging element) is what we think about ourselves.  It starts from doing the work on the inside, out. The rest will happen as a result.

Current statistics show that the current methods being utilised to make changes in mental health for millennials aren't as effective as they should be.

Significant contributing factors to this are:

  1. Relying on supporters to play the lead role in getting someone well
  2. Too much focus on creating 'awareness’ about how bad/mainstream the problem is
  3. Incomplete resources around help-seeking and supporting tactics that don't reach or resonate

I believe it’s time to flip the conversation in mental health from being told “it’s ok to talk”, to empowering the sufferer and giving them the resources to own their path to wellness, and take the lead in the conversation. We need to move beyond awareness, and create action-based initiatives that are rooted in science. People don’t speak up because they “can’t” accept who they are or what they are going through…. Unless, someone who they can relate to is going through the same.

What has been the best experience you’ve had on your mental health awareness journey so far?

Launching Heart On My Sleeve has been the most healing thing I have ever done, as it’s bought so much meaning from so much pain. Being in service is incredibly therapeutic. However, my close relationships are the best thing I have ever experienced. The bond I have with my Mum is second to none- and she has been a huge influence on me and my mental health journey. And funnily enough, a stranger on YouTube in some ways has been the best experience in my life, as he inspired me to create the HOMS Movement. As I lay in bed, browsing the web, I stumbled upon a video of this random guy, my age, in his room telling the world about his battle with mental health.

The story was almost word for word identical to mine, down to the finest details. It was uncanny. An incredible sense of relief came from feeling understood for the first time in my life. This young man and his YouTube video made me realise that most of the pain I felt was in the judgement surrounding the experience, not the experience itself. The second layer that led to my moment of falling apart was the guilt about being abnormal, the shame of anxiety, the thoughts of “what will people think of me if they find out… who will I let down?”. It was time to let myself be vulnerable – not only with others, but also with myself. I needed to stop running away, and, instead, walk through the fire.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

Heart On My Sleeve takes up a good chunk of my time. We have built an amazing platform, with an amazing community, with a potential to change the world. We want to move beyond a social campaign into a fully-fledged programs and services provider.

We uniquely serve both experiencers AND supporters affected by mental health. most other institutions focus on one or the other. Our focus is a digital first initiative and we provide all of our programs (stigma, education etc) online for convenience and scalability. We want to go a step beyond stigma, and build safe environments (where people can actually go and practice telling their story and asking for help so that they have a higher likelihood of continuing professional help.

Our mission is to humanise mental health by facilitating 3 million REAL conversations in the next 3 years – as more than 70% of people with a mental health issue do not speak up and ask for help. Even if/when they do, they rarely find the tools and/or channels to do that safely, authentically and with impact. We plan to achieve this through a range of programs, founded in the following strategic pillars:

  1. SOCIAL STORYTELLING - Eliminate the negative stigma of mental health by creating innovative
  2. storytelling platforms & campaigns that amplify and instigate R.E.A.L. conversations and connections
  3. ACCESSIBLE EDUCATION - Provide world-class preventative & support resources that educate & train on safe & effective help seeking & support strategies
  4. MODERN INTERVENTION - Improve access and efficiency of primary health interventions, access to and connection with professional services through the use of technology

I’m also working on some other ventures on the side that helps people find & connect with professional treatment more easily. And making a lot of video blogs on social media. I love them.

What do you think is Australia’s biggest challenges in the mental health field?

We all have a big job on our hands to help people in need in this country. It is an epidemic, no matter which way you look at it. We need all hands on deck to keep people alive and well. My personal opinion is that change needs to come in 5 main areas:

  1. Stigma – not just external stigma, but internal. It needs to become a more mainstream conversation rooted in behavior change, not awareness change, with people leading by example.
  2. The System – I don’t think we are setup structurally to solve the problem adequately. There is a large audience that sit between counseling care and acute hospitalization (I would say the majority) which we don’t know how to service sustainably. We have 1 session per week (if we are lucky) with 10 subsidized sessions a year. That’s just not enough. When you look at this with a regional lens and factor in rural access, it’s much much worse. We need to get more regulation in the counselor industry, and improvements to crisis care – particularly around upskilling hotline workers, and better post-in patient release follow up procedures.
  3. Medication – there needs to be a dramatic improvement to anti-depressant efficacy rates to reduce the trial-and-error to what we have now. Routine blood/metabolism testing should be done before starting any new medication to reduce. Pharmaceutical companies need to continue to invest in reducing significantly reducing side effects which are causing medication drop-outs and increased to patient suffering when they are most vulnerable. Some disorders e.g. disassociation, haven’t even really got a drug that can help just yet. Even small things like naming conventions e.g. anti-psychotics, is a barrier to people starting medication. Consumers see everything – even the research papers that tell you how effective it is. Language and labels are a big part of that
  4. Schools & Youth – we are underfunded & under resourced to deal with the amount of youth related mental health issues, particularly in the public-school system. The # of counsellors to # students or even schools is alarming.
  5. Workplace culture – it’s still not ok to take mental health leave at work. This is partly a stigma thing, but a targeted stigma that can only be undone in the workplace. We also need internal policies to support people when they need to lean on their employer for support – whether that be days off, subsidised help, etc.

What would you say to anyone out there struggling with their mental health?

There’s nothing wrong with you. Stop feeling guilty and shameful about being “broken”. It’s unnecessary. You are worthy of love, just as you are. I see you.

Mitch will be presenting at the 2018 International Mental Health Conference this August. Secure your spot to hear Mitch discuss his journey through mental health struggles, and his road to success in creating awareness for mental health support and recovery.

Find out more here.

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