Mental health hero: Meet Nic Newling
At the age of just 12, HCF member Nic Newling began a harrowing mental health journey. But the despair turned to joy once he received the right diagnosis and began to share his story with others.
Every Easter and Christmas, the Newlings, Jayne a journalist and Phil a third-generation wool buyer, took their three young boys, Ben, Christopher and Nic, on a family retreat to the beach. Salt clung to the kids’ hair as they spent sunny days on boogie boards with their cousins, whooping on waves. TV movies ran back-to-back on couch-potato afternoons.
The eldest Newling child, Ben, developed depression at the age of 16. Shortly after, Nic, who was four years younger, had his first psychotic episodes amid rampaging symptoms of anxiety and depression, intensified by the ultra-high standards he’d set for himself in Year 7. He’d always wanted to be a vet, had won a scholarship to a prestigious private high school and had tied his self-worth to a vision of academic achievement.
By the time Nic was 14, he could no longer concentrate on his schoolwork, and felt and saw the walls of his bedroom closing in on him.
Jayne would later write in her Human Rights Award-winning memoir that she and Phil “worked together to free our children’s minds” – Ben and Nic’s minds – from the grip of teen-onset mental illness. But, she writes, “several months later, Christopher went off the rails, and the impact was like someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail into our living room.”
Mental health youth statistics
The Australian Government’s 2015 report, The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents, revealed 14% of children and adolescents aged 4-17 experience a mental health condition. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show suicide to be the most prevalent cause of death in our young people: in 2015, 391 Australians aged 15-24 died by suicide.
Christopher, an athletic, funny, much-loved friend, son and brother, affectionately and forever known as ‘Cricket’, suffered a period of deep depression he found difficult to talk about, and one unbearable night in 2002, took his life.
At that time Nic was an outpatient in an adolescent mental health unit living with the hopelessness of an extreme mental illness that had been variously but incorrectly diagnosed for four years.
As he told ABC Radio in an episode of Conversations in July 2018, the death of his brother Christopher didn’t sink in for a long time, but what he knew instantly was that it took suicide “off the table” for him. “Seeing the effect that my brother’s death had on the whole family … I thought I’m either going to get better, keep persevering, or I’m going to live out my natural life being unwell.”
Sharing his mental health story
Today, 33-year-old Nic is health on legs, with strong posture, a kind, open blue-eyed gaze, and a wry, engaging smile. He laughs when relating his life experiences, as if perhaps he doesn’t expect people to understand the incongruity of his life then and now, but perhaps also to counteract the pain of remembering.
At times, he still cries in the course of sharing his story and his family’s experiences with audiences of teens, parents in schools, community groups and employees who see the benefits of normalising the conversation around mental illness.
Talking and listening have become the main components of Nic Newling’s working life; it’s the way, he says, he found of “paying forward” the persistent help and support he received to overcome his mental illness.
He wants people to be able to feel safe and confident to put up their hands when they feel mentally unwell, not to be defined by their illness, to be able to say, “There are so many parts to me, but one of those parts is experiencing a mental illness now.” Nic believes this will help ease the sense of isolation imposed by mental illness, by dispelling the myth that ‘everyone else’ out there is just fine.
Nic was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder only a few months after Christopher’s death. His doctor witnessed him during a manic phase in a locked ward at a private hospital. “I hadn’t slept for a couple of days,” says Nic, recalling that phase of irrepressible productivity – he thinks he may have been drawing or painting.
Bipolar disorder, once known as manic depression, is characterised by depressive periods of low mood, extreme sadness and lack of interest or pleasure in life, interspersed with manic or hypomanic episodes of extremely high mood, activity or agitation, racing thoughts and reduced need for sleep. One in 50 adult Australians experience this chronic condition each year, according to Better Health Victoria.
Getting the right mental health diagnosis
Nic had previously been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder...he felt he’d already forfeited a meaningful future and was reluctant to place bets on a new diagnosis. But it only took weeks for the bipolar medication to make a difference.
“It took a long time to get really, really well, but it took a short time to have a really huge breakthrough,” he says. He continued to experience highs and lows over several years, but he says taking the right medication provided a solid platform from which he worked on getting better.
When his illness was entrenched, Nic says, “I’d be with a psychologist but I could hardly listen. I couldn’t pay attention. But when the medications helped stabilise me, it allowed me to switch on.”
Mental health medication
Talking therapy and tweaking his medication over time led to increasingly reliable mood states, and then, he says, “A lot of what helped was also getting out on my own a little bit, trying new things, meeting different people, and forming a life for myself outside of home and the area I grew up in. It ultimately led to having a really joyful life.”
Nic says that if he’d heard someone tell a story like his at the time, it would have made a difference to his outlook. “No-one could convince me it would be okay – I knew that everyone who was telling me that was just trying to keep me going. But to hear it from someone who had lived it the way I was living it, that would really have resonated with me.”
Talking and listening to teens
His first speaking engagement was a year or so after he left the locked ward, and was brokered by Nic’s doctor, who persuaded Nic to address a group of school principals.
“It wasn’t just one principal, it was 50 of them; it was the ultimate difficult first audience,” he says. Even so, he didn’t prepare. It would become his style to stand up and speak from experience, and on that very first occasion, a person in the audience approached Nic afterwards and said that he’d never told anyone before, but that as a young man he had trodden the same path. “At that moment,” says Nic, “I thought, it’s not just about me. This stuff really matters.”
He’s now been a public speaker – telling the story of “How I unscrewed myself” and other accessibly themed subjects to organisations including HCF – and a mental health advocate for the past 15 years. From 2010, for more than six years, he also worked as Youth Engagement Lead at Black Dog Institute where he directed the development of a first-of-its-kind resilience and wellbeing website, Bite Back, for young people, based on positive psychology.
One of Nic’s gifts is for weaving experience with suggestions on how parents and their children, friends and colleagues can talk to each other without judgement, and support one another in accessing help.
He says he didn’t realise, until he read his mother’s book, Missing Christopher (Allen & Unwin, 2014), how much his parents dedicated themselves to helping him.
He’s grateful that his parents were alert to the gaps in his capabilities. Nic says that even though young people affected by mental illness want to be in the driver’s seat of their treatment, parents often need to be co-pilots: “If it had been up to me to keep a calendar and remember doctors’ appointments and when to take my medication, I could never have done it.”
Today Nic Newling leads The Champions – an organisation he founded and which he hopes will disseminate the many voices and experiences of mental illness, encouraging conversations. Nic hopes his work can help prevent youth suicide and help people get the most out of their lives.
If you’re concerned your child is experiencing a mental health issue, talk to your GP about the next steps. HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.
5 ways to help parents with teen mental health
- Find a regular ‘two-person job’ that allows your teen to talk to you. “I always thought walking the dog was a two-person job,” Nic says, “but it was my mum’s smart way of giving us space after dinner to just talk – it was already a habit of ours even before I got unwell.” He says it made it easier for him to keep talking to his parents when things got difficult. Doing the washing up, driving to the supermarket and weeding the garden are some other shared conversational opportunities.
- Recognise that you may not have all the answers, and get help early. There are many reasons to get help when you recognise something serious is affecting your child’s mood. It helps the whole family feel supported and to dispel any misconceptions you may have. It also gives your child someone neutral to speak with, and it starts a road to treatment and successfully managing their condition, or towards recovery. His parents helped Nic to first connect with his long-time GP about what he was feeling, which led to him talking to a local counsellor and also his school counsellor.
- Ditch the urge to fix it. Mental illness is different to shortsightedness that can be fixed by a trip to the optometrist. The urge to want to ‘fix’ mental illness in a similar way, with what Nic call’s a ‘laundry list’ of things to do, is hard to suppress. In the first instance, however, he says most kids just want to be listened to without judgement and to feel safe in expressing their feelings.
- Let kids know it’s OK to reprioritise. “The ways in which kids have derived their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment before they started struggling with their mental health may not be as achievable. They can get stuck in a rut of thinking, ‘Why can’t I do this anymore when I used to be good at it?’ Let your kids know it’s OK to pull back or take a break if those activities have become overwhelming, or if they don’t make them happy anymore,” says Nic.
- Share realistic expectations. It’s natural to want to hang your hopes on each possible solution and to encourage your child with the thought that positive outcomes are just around the corner. Nic’s diagnosis and treatment took years, and although he says many paths to treatment and even recovery may move more quickly, having realistic, honest expectations fosters a frame of mind that doesn’t see failure at every turn. “There’s comfort in honesty,” says Nic. “Parents can say, ‘I don’t know how long this is going to take to get better, or to what degree it’s going to change, but I’m here with you every step of the way.”
Words by Natalie Filatoff
Updated October 2021
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