Finding the way

It was art and acceptance that helped Maria Dimopoulos make her way through mental illness. But the stigma within migrant communities still remains a concern

When Maria and I meet in North Fitzroy, she is quick to take out of her bag one of her last artworks. It is meticulously wrapped in bubble wrap and well secured to survive its trip from her Westmeadows home to the city.

She takes it out on the café table while impatiently telling the story of her new decoupage technique that she just invented.

“This piece is like a Holy Grail to me. It’s a prototype of something new – that’s why it’s so precious, I don’t want anything to happen to it,” she says passionately.

Maria’s connection to her artwork is best understood when she reveals that all of her artwork from her University years is on display in her front yard.
Every time she returns home, she goes through the sculptures, counting them – just to make sure they are all there.

At the age of 19, Maria Dimopoulos was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder 1. A state of deep depression and episodes of mania, as she describes it.
When she was diagnosed, art was already a fundamental part of Maria’s being. To this day she remembers her art teachers complimenting her on her good work from a young age.

But as an insecure child, Maria couldn’t accept the compliments.

In 1987, after experimenting with ceramics in high school, she entered a Fine Arts degree at RMIT.

For Maria’s migrants parents, becoming an artist was not seen as a ‘proper job’.

But in the end, it was art that inspired Maria’s vision towards an alternative form of recovery, prevention and management of the illness she was battling with.
“They had high hopes for all three of us. I remember my dad, he would come home with a battered work bag and just repeat over and over again – ‘I don’t want you to end up like me’. He made us very ambitious. When I did fine arts they thought it wasn’t really a job, so I questioned myself so many times…”

For the first time in 1988, and half way through her second year at college, Maria has seen the ugly face of the mental illness. As some kind of explanation, she offers that from the age of 6 to 18 she had no break – she was lucky if she had time to watch TV, or to play.

“Every day was school, every Saturday was Greek school, every Sunday church.

“I didn’t know – no one really knew what was going on. The first time I was extremely angry, frustrated, upset, inconsolable. Soon after, I was in the psyche ward.”

To this day, Maria clearly remembers her first admission. She describes it in detail, things that she never talked about before.

“It’s all in here, in my head. I didn’t want to be there. I thought I wasn’t that sick. But later I got worse and they had to put me in cells – in so called seclusion – to calm down…”

Maria’s memories of her years of turmoil while battling mental illness are vivid and still seem to cause the same pain as on the day they happened. The difference is she knows how to deal with the pain now.

And it’s these memories that are her main tool when giving presentations to high school students and psychiatric nurses in her new role of mental illness advocate.

Since 2011, Maria has trained and worked actively as advocate and advisor for many health organisations. She gives presentations to Year 10, 11 and 12 students, to parents with children with mental illness, to carers and consumers.

Through her experience of living with bipolar, Maria now helps others with their ongoing recovery.

“I recently spoke to the psychiatric nurses at the Austin Hospital, and told them about my experiences, told them what not to do to patients. Don’t ignore patients when they are knocking on the window and calling for you. We call them fish bowl consumers, patients in the ward – like fish – they have no sense of what the hell is going on outside. I’ve been dying to get that message out there,” Maria tells Neos Kosmos.

Mental illness in migrant communities

With over a quarter of Australians born overseas, rising to almost a third (32 per cent) by 2050 according to the ABS, mental illness within migrant and refugee communities is a matter of concern in Australia.

Sufferers and their families are often met with a shame that forces them to retreat rather than seek help.

We still know very little about different communities’ needs. They are frightened to come forward for many reasons such as stigma, language barriers, confidence in health services and cultural issues.

For this reason it is claimed the national statistics are also skewed, cases under-recorded and potentially not enough services.

According to Nicholas Procter, University of South Australia Professor and Mental Health in Multicultural Australia (MHiMA) representative, it is hard to say whether mental health issues are more common in migrant communities than amongst the general population.

What is known is that first and second generation immigrants and people from refugee backgrounds have different needs and preferences when mental health issues arise.

“People from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds have lower rates of voluntary mental health care when compared with the general population. They are over-represented in the group of people who are treated involuntarily or admitted for acute inpatient care.

“This suggests that CALD populations are more likely to access mental health care only when they become acutely and seriously unwell and are more exposed to adverse quality and safety risks,” says Professor Procter.

Some of the barriers for CALD people in accessing mental health services include viewing mental health issues as a source of embarrassment, some believing that problems should be overcome on one’s own or with the help of one’s family and not shared with outsiders; while others don’t expect that their needs will be addressed or understood and respected by mainstream services.

“To my relatives my mental illness was shame, but my parents were so supportive. For me it was shame too, I didn’t want any of my relatives to know the details of my bipolar,” Maria tells Neos Kosmos, confirming that acceptance and support were her main weapons to fight bipolar.

“I think the situation is changing in migrant communities. Acceptance is a big thing in mental illness. The person going through it has to accept it too – I would have thrown my medication down the toilet if I didn’t.

“Acceptance comes with a consumer but also must come with the family or friends. Support comes after that. I’m just guessing that without either of those they would be unwell for a much longer time.”

This year, on the occasion of Harmony Day that celebrates Australia’s diversity, a series of short films entitled Finding Our Way was made for and by migrant communities.

Produced under the auspices of MHiMA and Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), ten Australians from culturally diverse backgrounds courageously shared their moving stories of recovery from emotional or mental health problems. Maria Dimopoulos was one of them.

The project was aimed to unshackle the stigma and the cultural beliefs about what constitutes mental illness and how to respond to it.

“At every level, it’s very important and powerful when individuals and families speak out about their experiences,” Professor Procter explains.

“This is why we are really positive about the Finding Our Way stories – the storytellers are letting us know, in poetic and creative ways, who they are and what’s important to them. They’ve had difficulties to overcome and yet they are living interesting, meaningful lives, want others to understand this and see that there is no shame in speaking out about mental health issues.”

Ms Dimopoulos’ film, The Visual Conductor, reflects on her Greek heritage and family expectations, and the difficulties she encountered from childhood through to adulthood.

Talking about her problems empowered Maria and made her more resilient. She now hopes the project can be a springboard for other migrants to tell their stories.

Melbourne University’s Centre for International Mental Health Associate Professor and the chair of MHiMA, Harry Minas says more research into migrant mental health is needed.

“There are a lot of problems. People, when they migrate, confront a lot of challenges and refugees certainly confront a lot of challenges.

“We feel that there is not much understanding about what actually are the experiences of mental illness of people from a migrant, refugee background, but even more so, what are their journeys of recovery.”

After having struggled with bipolar, with confidence and purpose in life, today Maria feels good about herself, positive and more focused.

“Today I feel that I am more empowered as I have restored myself through being involved in the Mental Health Network and having discovered my true voice and self-expression through the Visual Arts.

“My parents know I do mental health advocacy work. My mum tells me it’s like I am confessing my experiences, to help people. Every day my parents tell me they are proud of me.

“I’m proud of it as well. I would like to continue until I’m 80, 90 or as long as I can. It’s a life long thing that I want to do – mental health advocacy.

“I want to help others because I know how hard it is to go through all that and come out of it and have a sense of self-worth. I had no such thing for many years. I have to thank Mental Illness Fellowship for that one, but I’ve done it myself as well.”

To watch Maria’s and other Finding Our Way short movies, visit www.mhima.org.au/finding-our-way