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Darren Hunt — clear skies after the storm

Following in the family tradition

I joined the Army in September 1989 in Adelaide. My father was in the Military, my grandfather was also in the Military, so there was a tradition there. I felt a sense of honour to follow in their footsteps.

Darren HuntI went through basic training at Wagga Wagga and I did my corp training at Albury/ Wodonga. I was then based in Sydney and managed to reach the rank of full Corporal after 3 and a bit years, so I was doing pretty well. Then I went to Royal Military College (RMC) as a Cadet and that was when I was first unwell.

Diagnosed with a mental illness

I was really unwell. It was a very traumatic time for me, especially because I didn't understand what was happening to me. I joined the Army at 18 years old, so I was in my early 20's and I didn't even know what psychosis was or what schizophrenia means. I thought it was someone with a split personality but in actual fact that is not the case. In my personal experience it's where you lose track of reality and it's where you have irrational thinking and thought processes, as well as that sometimes you have hallucinations and hear voices. It's pretty scary. To go through that while I was serving was very difficult. There was a lot of stigma because people didn't understand.

My psychosis was found to be brought about through training exercises and had a lot to do with sleep deprivation. My diagnosis is Schizoaffective Disorder and it was a very traumatic time in my life.

I wasn't coping

I was discharged in December 1993, a couple of months after I had been in the Military for 4 years. Prior to that, I had been through some tough times at RMC and I was transferred from being a Cadet and put back as a Corporal at one of the offices in Canberra but I wasn't really coping. At that stage I was going to pull the pin and leave because I knew I wasn't well.

Once I knew I was going to be medically discharged I didn't know how to take it, on one hand I was relieved that the Army was recognising that I had a condition as well looking after it. They had known that I had been unwell at RMC originally and that I had not been on any medication at that time. They were aware that I had psychoses and had bouts of them before this point. Some people have a one off psychotic episode and then they recover. However I wasn't that fortunate and I was going in and out of psychosis. They identified that I was really unwell.

Mental illness doesn't define who I am, it's just part of me

At the time mental illness wasn't as accepted as it is today. However even today, conditions like bi-polar and schizophrenia are still not really understood by the public. So back then in the 90's when I was having these problems it was even less understood compared to today.

Acceptance was one of the biggest challenges I faced at the time. Acceptance that it is ok to have a mental illness and it doesn't mean that I'm weak. Unfortunately in the Military, and I'm not sure how well it is accepted today, it was hard to find that acceptance. I think back then I was very hard on myself. It took me a long time to realise that the diagnosis I have doesn't define who I am, it is just a 'part of me'.

When I eventually got on medication, I had a few side effects, for example I put on 20 to 30 kilos in the first three months. I was trying to exercise but I couldn't exercise because the medication I was on at the time caused a lot of stiffness in my muscles which made exercise extremely difficult for me. I had restlessness where my legs would go up and down, so it was quite traumatic. The weight gain of course didn't help my self-esteem either.

Managing employment

Over the past 20 years I've selected work that helped and didn't aggravate my condition. With my condition, you need to know your triggers, so for me stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation are triggers that have the potential to unsettle me. I have done jobs in the past where I would go well at work and therefore be handed more and more responsibility and due to my condition that is not always the best for me. Therefore, I choose work where I'm not in a managerial position or at a supervisor level. I find that work where I have too much responsibility tends to be a trigger so I try to seek work that is as stress free as possible.

In some jobs I was really hesitant to disclose my mental health condition because of the stigma associated with it. That's why now I've actually moved into the mental health industry where it is more accepted. I thought well if I can't hold down a job in the mental health sector which supports people with mental ill health, what hope is there for a person like me that on occasions becomes unwell? If they don't understand, who will?

Building on my strengths

My current role is as a Peer Specialist, and what that means is that I have experienced mental ill-health and I choose to meaningfully and purposefully share strategies for living well in the hope to benefit someone, on their recovery journey. I work for a federally run program which is called 'Partners in Recovery'. I currently work for a lead agency organisation in a consortium model with seven other non-government sector organisations. I support people in the identification and accomplishment of their needs. I help co-ordinate clients engage with government and non-government services. But part of my role is at an advocacy level where I advocate for mental health service users and for the standards and conditions of lived experience workers in my region.

DVA assisted me with completing a Certificate IV in Mental Health and I was also able to do my Senior First Aid Certificate as well. Since then I've been able to further my knowledge on various mental health conditions to broaden my understanding of different conditions.

In my prior work history I have always worked five days a week. However I found that was getting a bit too much for me, so I made the conscious decision to cut down to three days and found that to be of greater benefit for me at this stage. While I'm assisting others with recovery, I'm also on my own recovery journey which I need to maintain.

DVA were very helpful when I was transitioning careers in particular. I was unwell in my last job and I was taking all my long service leave and for 15 to 20 years since receiving my diagnosis I didn't even know about incapacity payments. I found myself in the position that I wasn't able to work and I was provided with that support. My rehabilitation coordinator was really instrumental in helping me change career paths to what I'm doing now, I was very grateful. Even before I had the interview, they were able to give me a mock interview and that really helped my confidence. So they have gone over and above.

Looking after my health holistically

With my condition now, I feel I understand it better. I'm kind of lucky with my condition in the sense that after experiencing a psychosis (or mental ill-health), I tend to not deteriorate and can come back up to the normal level quite quickly compared to many others with my condition. I've got an attitude now where I am grateful for life.

I'm quite positive about my condition which helps. I've had times where my condition has become quite acute but I've been able to come back with a better attitude and to bounce back each time. That didn't come overnight. It has been a long time spent understanding and accepting my condition.

Managing my condition has been a challenge, for example I would be fine and not have a sick day for 2 to 3 years but then would burn myself out and end up being sick for 2 to 3 months but I think I manage that better now. It's very important for me to look after my health holistically. Therefore, if I'm on medication that leads to putting on 20 to 30 kilos then diet becomes extremely important to me. I've got to exercise, I try to walk ten thousand steps a day. DVA have now set me up with a program 'Exercises for Soldiers' where a trained exercise physiologist tailors a program individually for you depending on your injuries. For me this involves strength exercises and also the ten thousand steps a day, so that has helped a lot too.

Clear skies after the storm

I think for any Military personnel in a similar position, my advice would be to really think about what you want out of life and what makes you happy and make that a strength, try and build on that and see if you can build that into your occupation or into your own life.

Learning about your condition is also important, but I think building on strengths is a big key and being as positive as you can is very important. I've been lucky because I haven't given up, when a lot of people probably would have. I wouldn't say I've fully recovered, because recovery for me is living as best as I can and that is really a day to day process.

My life motto that I live by is, "on the tough days know that there is a good day around the corner and on the good days know that you have the strength to handle the tough days when they come."

For me with an episodic condition you can be going along fine and then something will happen and I will spiral down. When I spiral down it is heart breaking. I always remind myself that you can learn from the hard times and that these hard times will not last forever. Nothing is constant in life. Every experience can be described like clouds passing in the sky, and sometimes there will even be a storm but eventually it is going to be clear again. I am grateful and every day is a new beginning.

Open Arms — Veterans & Families Counselling (formerly VVCS), is a national mental health service that provides 24-hour free and confidential counselling, group programs, and suicide prevention training for current and ex-serving ADF members, and their family. To get support, or to find out more, call 1800 011 046 or visit Open Arms.

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