By Danielle Kutchel
A former paramedic has turned a career-ending mental illness into a new, positive pathway – one that still allows her to help people, whilst acknowledging and learning from her “truth”.
It didn’t happen overnight – as Lisa Westgate says, she was “the last one to my own party”.
Oscillating between fury and exhaustion, she found herself taking it out on family and friends as well without realising what she was experiencing.
“With mental health issues, when you’re in it, it’s a bit like being Dorothy in the middle of the tornado. The world whirs around you and I didn’t have the insight to recognise that that’s what was happening to me,” she explains.
It got to the point where she was unwilling to put on the sirens in her ambulance, as the shrill sound would push her over the edge.
Eventually, the career she had thought she would be in until retirement ended when she was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression.
An isolated Ms Westgate was put on the disability pension at the age of 34. The loss of her career affected her sense of identity.
“I sat on the couch and watched movies and reminisced about how great I once was, how many lives I’d once saved and how many babies I’d delivered.
“I was very focused on the past and strongly felt a real sense of loss, like I’d lost my identity, my tribe.”
But it wasn’t long before her “inherent stubbornness” led her to question the Western medical model that told her she would be permanently disabled.
She began to explore alternatives, explaining: “I remember a time for most of my life when I didn’t have this, so how do I not have this again?”
She discovered neuro-linguistics programming, or NLP, and threw herself into learning as much about it as she could. During her study, she was forced to ask herself what she wanted her life to be – and rediscovered her passion for helping others.
Now a qualified NLP trainer, Ms Westgate facilitates training and workshops for both individuals and organisations – especially those in uniform – drawing from her own experience in mental health, providing strategies and training to overcome mental health challenges.
She runs regular workshops with new recruits at Victoria Police, and encourages them to separate their work identity from who they are as a person – so that if the worst happens, as it did to her, they don’t lose their sense of identity.
She has plans to publish a book next year which will be an unofficial handbook on early-career mental health strategies for people in emergency services or uniformed roles.
The book will include insights from others like her who have experienced mental health issues in their career.
“You’re still going to get bad days, bad weeks, maybe bad months, but with some of the information that us ‘fogeys’ have, maybe you won’t fall in the hole as deep or stay there as long,” she says of the book.
Ms Westgate hopes by sharing her journey, others will feel empowered to challenge the mental health stigma and begin their own path to recovery.
“I’m a big advocate of people telling their story and I’m not going to hide what happened, because maybe if people see me standing on stage talking about it then maybe they can tell their boss or supervisor or family member,” she says.
Find out more about Lisa Westgate at www.freedommindset.com.au