Gemma regains control of her life

04:25, Jul 18 2012

Gemma Kelley struggled for years with what's now been diagnosed as major depression, generalised anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

The 22-year-old Timaru native, who lives and works in Christchurch and volunteers as an ambulance officer with St John, said she now sees how much her personality changed after the onset of these conditions during her teenage years, and how deeply her mental illness affected her relationships with family and friends. But it wasn't until 20 months ago that Gemma accepted psychiatric care, when friends realised she'd become a danger to herself and insisted she get help.

Gemma said she resisted that help, partly because she was afraid people would label her a "psych patient" or would think she couldn't deal with stress.

"The way I've seen people react to mental health issues has always kind of scared me," she said. "There is a big stigma around it. I feel that people are very judgmental. That could be because they're scared, or because they lack understanding about it."

Gemma offered to share her story as part of The Herald's Suicide: Time to Talk series.

The more the public understands about mental illness and the factors that contribute to suicides, the less isolated people struggling with those issues will feel, Gemma said.


St John and other emergency service agencies acknowledge the importance of providing opportunities for counselling to people who regularly face traumatic situations. Gemma said even talking about an event with other ambulance officers after returning to the station helps them deal with their high-stress role.

But in the wider community, the stigma surrounding mental illness often causes people to shy away from getting help - even on behalf of loved ones who are showing serious warning signs.

"People are too scared to annoy the people they're concerned about. They don't want to disrupt the peace or make it worse," she said. "But I think the more noise you make about it ... you're going to get results. You're going to save people's lives."

In Gemma's case, she was angry with her friends when they intervened. But she knows now that they did it because they cared.

Gemma spent five weeks in hospital and several months recovering at home in Timaru. She credits the treatment she received during that time with helping her learn to manage her illness and start living again.

She returned to Christchurch, started a new job and, after an extensive evaluation process, she resumed her duties with St John.

The Timaru Herald