By Colleen Egan, The West Australian, 29 October 2011 -
Tomorrow, Glenn Mitchell boards a plane to South Africa, where he will be commentating on the Test cricket for the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
It will be his first time behind the microphone since May, when he shocked listeners by quitting as a sports broadcaster at the ABC, where he had worked for more than 20 years. Mitchell, known as The Oracle for his encyclopedic knowledge of sport, threw in his dream job while in the grip of a mental breakdown that almost cost his life.
Mitchell, who is married to fellow sports broadcaster Karen Tighe, has lived with "the black dog" for many years and went to the brink of suicide before his psychiatrist discovered that he had been misdiagnosed and wrongly medicated for depression instead of bipolar type 2.
Having hidden his struggle with mental illness from fans and colleagues for years, Mitchell opened up in the most dramatic and wholesale fashion: on the front page of this newspaper and on Channel 7's Today Tonight.
He told how he prepared to take his life in the Perth Hills, having written farewell notes for his wife and five-year-old son, James. A ranger who saw a hose in his car boot sat and spoke to him and, Mitchell says, saved his life.
While he remains devastated that he threw away his job after behaving in a "reprehensible" way to some colleagues, off and on, for some time, Mitchell is feeling better now than he has for years.
His mood-stabilising medication is working, his therapy is progressing well and he has a new purpose in life: to use his story as a weapon against the debilitating effects of untreated mental illness.
Mitchell misses broadcasting and can't wait to get behind the microphone when Australia takes on South Africa, but that is not his only employment now – since revealing his struggle, offers of public speaking engagements have been flowing in, as have comments from well-wishers.
"I've been stunned by the level of response to the story and what an incredibly positive experience it's been", he said. "We took the young fella to the Royal Show and people were coming up wanting to talk to us, to say well done – they were people who we'd never met before, "I thought it would have a benefit and that's why I was willing to do it but I've been genuinely surprised by how many people it has touched.
"For me it's been a bit of a cathartic thing – it's another validation that you shouldn't be afraid to talk about it. I hope that underlines for people that there is no shame about coming forward because it seems to me that people want to rally around and support you."
When I first interviewed Mitchell, he told me that if just one person sought help as a result of his story, he would feel it was worthwhile. He succeeded.
"There was one woman who came up to us in one of the pavilions at the Show and said that she'd read the newspaper article and she and her husband had watched Today Tonight on the Monday night and as a result her husband made an appointment with the GP", he said.
"He knew what I was saying: the story I was telling was resonating with how he felt. So that was a powerful message. If that one person now gets a positive outcome and is able to tell people about it, that is what we need: the story to be spread far and wide."
Mitchell wishes he had been more open with his colleagues at the ABC, where his wife still works."I have this great regret that there were colleagues at work who I treated very badly", he said.
"You can't wind the clock back but I wish I had been brave enough to say 'I'm not coping well today' or rung up on a Saturday morning and say "I'm not well enough to do the program today or could we organize someone else to do the footy because I'm not in a good headspace' ... but I still saw it then as a point of weakness."
Mitchell wishes he had confided in his friend Wally Foreman, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006, a few months after Mitchell first sought help from his GP and was prescribed anti-depressants. "One of the biggest regrets I have is not telling Wally", he said.
"He would have been the sort of person I would've confided in. That played on my mind for quite a while. We worked in such a close environment: Wally and I did the cricket, Sportstalk, the footy.
"Wally was the best man at my wedding. I wish I'd been brave enough to say, 'look this is what I'm going through'. I'd like to have explained to him why I behaved the way I did and that I was taking steps, to let him know that that was the reason."
Mitchell is conscious of using the word "brave" in relation to mental illness where he wouldn't if it was a physical ailment. "What we need to do as a society is get to a point where people don't feel any shame in saying 'I've got depression", he said. "The thing that has really struck me is that people come up and everybody starts with the phrase 'you're brave', which is a pretty good indicator that mental illness still has a degree of stigma in society."
Tighe has also been flooded with messages of support. "I've been receiving text messages and emails of support from friends and people I haven't met to say 'thank you for that story being told because it makes us not feel so alone'", she said.
"People have said that it reminded them of situations that they've been through that have some similarities and they know now it wasn't just them, it happens to other people. "They can identify, too, with the feelings of exhaustion or treading on eggshells or keeping up appearances or trying to keep a sense of normality, of making excuses for someone's behaviour.
"I think the more we talk about this and the fact that it is an illness that doesn't discriminate then that can only help. We've learned a lot and we're in a positive part of the journey now." When I spoke to him this week, Mitchell was in Darwin on a job for a non-government agency, speaking to Aboriginal elders and people who work in mental health and suicide prevention in indigenous communities.
"I just tell my story and talk about not being ashamed, how to take action and being prepared to ask people how they are," he said. Before that, he was in country WA speaking to farmers who are doing it tough.
"I was speaking to a group of about 50 farmers and their wives for One Life," he said. "They were a hardened lot and I thought they'd be a difficult audience but after I told my story, they all came up and took cards with the phone numbers of places to seek help.
"One bloke told me that just three months ago his son-in-law put a gun to his head. He left a wife and children, a farm and a debt. The suicide risk is so great among men in rural areas."
Mitchell's messages are to seek help from a GP and to involve partners or other loved ones in the diagnosis process. "When you're caught up in the maelstrom yourself, you can't describe your own behaviour," he said. "If I'd have got Karen involved earlier I wouldn't have lost my job and I wouldn't have hit rock bottom."
The other message is that having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. "If I've learned something, it's that if you go out and say it, most people will support you," he said. "I think of these young men who have committed suicide and think if they had gone and talked about it in their town in the country or workplace, they would probably have got the same reaction I got – people saying 'let's rally around you, let's get you help, let's support you'.
"The biggest thing I've learned is, there is no shame."