People with mental illness need to be resilient

21:55, Feb 16 2014

In this series, Like Minds Taranaki manager Virginia Winder shares stories to foster understanding and openness about mental health.


In the face of stigma and discrimination, Taranaki woman Nichola Smith has mastered the art of resilience - now she wants to share her findings with the world.

"Now I have become quite outspoken about my experiences and it's scary, but you have to use your voice," she says.

Last year, the 34-year-old completed a Masters in Nursing through Massey University and graduated with honours for her thesis: The Art of Resilience - a study of the experience of stigma in nurses with mental illness.

"It popped into my head one day that mental illness affects every part of your life and you need to be resilient."


For her research, Nichola completed a small pilot study involving three nurses and also documented her own experiences as someone with lived experience of mental illness.

Her findings were clear: "Attitudes need to change - attitudes towards yourself in terms of self-stigma and attitudes from other people."

One of the nurses she interviewed covered up her mental struggles by changing jobs every time she became unwell.

Another nurse overheard her friends and colleagues saying she had better be careful or she would lose her registration because of her mental illness.

"The findings were that nurses suffer just as much as anyone else with mental illness - often more - and that they really struggle with discrimination in the workplace and that came out in a really big way," Nichola says.

"But they are also very resilient," says the woman, who embodies that attribute.

Nichola was born with a degenerative bone condition called arthrogryposis, which means she can't move her joints well and they get displaced. "I have pins throughout my whole body - it's quite cool to see on X-rays."

She also has Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, which means severe pain and is difficult to treat.

Alongside these, Nichola has had a life-time of living with experience of mental illness.

"Mum used to see a dark cloud come over my face when I was a baby - she didn't know what it was. Because I was born with this bone condition and had lots and lots of surgeries, she thought it was to do with that."

But it was much more.

When she was 16, Nichola had an extreme period of mania. "I thought I was invincible and I'd drive the car and get the speed up so high it was off the clock and drive on the wrong side of the road."

Also flying along at high speed were her thoughts and speech. "People couldn't keep up - I would change the topic of the conversation constantly. It would all link up in my head and I would be having hundreds of conversations in my head, but when I spoke nobody could understand me."

Then came the flipside. "The depression and despair after was so debilitating and I would just cry. You are just existing - that's it."

At age 17, her mum made her go to the doctor and Nichola has been in the mental health system on and off ever since.

After leaving school she studied for a Bachelor of Nursing at Witt and graduated "by the skin of my teeth because my mental illness played havoc with me completing clinicals in the mental health setting".

In an attempt to have a fresh start, she took a job working with respiratory and cardiac patients at Waikato Hospital.

But still her inner battles continued and Nichola became anorexic, deeply depressed, and was in a huge amount of physical and mental pain. During this period she tried to take her life many times.

"I honestly believed my family would be better off without me, but that's a lie," she says.

Nichola is thankful that during those tumultuous years she had understanding workmates. "The support that I had from my colleagues and managers at Waikato was unreal. I was off work so often."

At age 26, Nichola was finally diagnosed with bipolar.

"I was so relieved - it made sense. I don't like labels but, like my bone condition, once you know what it is, it can be treated. Mental illness is exactly the same."

From then on Nichola devoured information about bipolar, a mood disorder characterised by periods of deep depression and huge highs.

While writing her masters thesis, Nichola faced more challenges - a horrible divorce, five surgeries for various health issues and a mental health relapse, which included a period of psychosis. She was also diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of harrowing events.

"So I was just so proud of myself that I could carry on and do it. I think that's because I was so passionate about it," Nichola says.

"I think people with mental illness are really resilient and they are not given enough credit for staying alive and for wanting to do more than just exist."

Now Nichola, a self-confessed geek, is studying for a Graduate Diploma in Science, majoring in Psychology and Anthropology. She is also involved in researching the lived experience of people with disabilities in New Zealand. This is through the New Zealand Convention of Coalition Monitoring Group, which provides the reports to the Government. Nichola is also a Lifeline volunteer.

Here are her Top 10 tools for resilience:

1. Own a dog. In the past few weeks Nichola has been in a huge amount of physical pain, but finds the loyalty and love from her 8 1/2-year-old black labrador Licorice (Likky) uplifting.

2. Treat yourself. Buy yourself a new body wash or treat yourself to a nice coffee at a cafe once a week. This is a tip she gleaned from learning Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.

3. Exercise in nature. For Nichola that means biking along the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway. "I do that most days and something incredible happens in my head."

4. Connect with people. "It's the last thing you want to do when you are depressed, but if you connect with people when you are well, they'll stick around when you're not."

5. Count your small steps. "Because they will add up to be big steps. Sometimes I can barely walk to the toilet, so when I walk to the letterbox that's great."

6. Laugh. "Watch Mrs Brown on YouTube or something that will make you laugh."

Nichola says she has been in extreme pain and then her dog will do something funny that makes her laugh loudly. "Then the pain goes because endorphins are 10,000 times stronger than morphine."

7. Eat whole food. "Your body and mind cannot heal itself when you are eating out of packets. It really makes a difference to how you feel if you nourish your body from the inside."

8. Forgive. "It's absolutely one of the hardest things to do, but it means that whatever that person did to you, it's not going to keep you in bondage any more - you feel free."

9. Have faith. Nichola says it's important to explore the spiritual side of life, whatever that means for you. "We are physical, mental and spiritual beings and you cannot heal one without the others."

10. Accept yourself. Until a person accepts they have a mental illness, they may avoid asking for help and won't be able to work towards recovery. "Acceptance leads to empowerment, which leads to better choices."

For more information, phone Like Minds Taranaki on 06 7590966, email or go to

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