What Really Goes on at Headspace

Anonymous gives headspace a piece of her mind.

The USU’s decision to endorse headspace as its 2014/15 charity partner is a significant commitment. During Board elections in week 11, the Union will donate a dollar to headspace for every single vote cast.

Sounds good? A youth mental health initiative, offering support on a range of issues for anyone under the age of 25. But headspace has failed me, and I know it has failed others.

At my first appointment at headspace Camperdown, I met with a psychologist to address the therapy appropriate to my anxiety and OCD behavioural issues. After that one session, she decided I wouldn’t be able to crack it through therapy alone, and shuttled me off to one of the psychiatrists.

In that appointment, I ran through my symptoms again—obsessive thoughts, calming rituals, a propensity to panic. At one point, she asked if I’d ever had difficulties with food, or had tried to lose weight. As an overweight young woman, I responded that I had tried to diet once or twice. I spied her making the note “eating disorder?”

She asked about my friends, and how I was socially. I told her what most people with an anxiety issue would say—that  I sometimes struggle to be social. She turned the computer away, but not so far away that I couldn’t see her type “Asperger’s symptoms” into Google.

I was treated by headspace for roughly two months. In that time, I was prescribed a different medication on a near weekly basis, often in combination and with little regard for their intended use or potential interactivity. I came back week after week with different or worsening symptoms, many of which were likely side effects of the medication, and my doctor’s response was to discontinue and replace or add something else. Antipsychotics one week, anticonvulsants the next.

Considering that fairly run of the mill treatments for depression and anxiety disorders can take up to six weeks to have a noticeable effect, I found this approach a little disconcerting, and very frightening. I worsened significantly during my treatment there. I began cancelling appointments, fearful of what I would be prescribed.

Eventually, after an especially bad episode, I realised that my treatment at headspace wasn’t helping. By that point, I was on five different medications, isolated, and deeply depressed. Off the back of a referral from a friend, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist at a different practice, hopeful that I’d have more luck with a different doctor.

I went back to headspace for one final session, to tell my doctor that I was seeking treatment elsewhere. She responded by leaving the room. When they returned, it was with the senior doctor to tell me that, in their professional opinion, I needed to be taken to hospital. When I told them I had no need of that kind of intervention, I was told that sick people can’t think for themselves, and that my illness had clouded my judgement. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and ran.

I continue to see my new psychiatrist.

Headspace Camperdown is affiliated with the University of Sydney Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI), and the BMRI website lists headspace as one of its research facilities.

When I compare my experience with headspace—marked by constant experimentation with different treatments—to that with the psychiatrist I saw for over a year afterwards—who made only minor adjustments to my treatment—I wonder to what extent the research component of headspace’s practice factored into my treatment. And, if it had factored in, why that wasn’t disclosed to me.

I asked for my own medical records held by headspace for background on this piece. Despite the fact this is not only run of the mill, but generally legislatively required, they denied my request—no reason was given.

I decided to speak to other students, to see what their experience was too. I received mixed responses.

I received several positive responses that praised its youth friendly approach, and described how psychologists at the Camperdown clinic have empowered their patients to take control of their own mental health by providing them with skills and management techniques. One student said headspace was a hard-working organisation seeking to address the complex and increasing problem of youth mental illness.

But the praise isn’t universal. One student recalled how, having had negative experiences with psychologists in the past, they contacted the organisation requesting to email a potential professional before committing to an appointment. They received a generic reply instructing them to make an appointment. The student reiterated their discomfort, and asked with some urgency to contact a psychologist via email. She never received a reply, “despite telling them twice that it was an emergency”.

Another student attended an appointment to address issues with anxiety and was told by their caseworker: “make sure you come when you book a session, because if you don’t come, I don’t get paid. If you don’t show up, I’ll tell the other counsellors not to see you.”

A recent Sydney Morning Herald article quoted Professor John Mendoza, former CEO of the mental health council of Australia, who states “the original intent of Headspace has been ‘perverted,’” and that the organisation is moving towards unnuanced, mass-produced mental health solutions. The article went on to describe challenging headspace as akin to “questioning the Pope”.

The problem is, headspace is not infallible and, without questioning, risks turning people off mental health support. Its reach and scale mean the vulnerable may fall through the cracks.  And for those who have fallen through or have had negative experiences with the service, a dollar for every vote cast in the imminent USU elections may only serve as a deterrent.