From an outsider’s perspective, Carden Calder has had a star-studded and enviable career in high-profile roles and then as a successful entrepreneur.

But behind the scenes Calder, the managing director and co-founder of BlueChip Communication, has faced more difficulty owing to mental illness than many can imagine.

Calder and her family have been deeply touched by mental illness. As well as her own battle with anxiety which led to depression, Calder’s 17-year old son Alex is transgender which puts him in a higher risk group for depression and suicidal tendencies. Alex has given his mother permission to tell his story. He and his siblings are united in their belief that greater understanding and acceptance will improve the mental health of transgender kids.

Many are uncomfortable talking about their personal journey with mental illness, believing for various reasons that it is not what others want to hear about. But Calder said hearing people talk about their personal challenges has been an enormous help.

“I will never forget the first day I heard John Brogden tell his story in person,” Calder told a recent virtual roundtable discussing the profound impact of the coronavirus on society’s mental health, hosted by Investment Magazine and AIA Australia. Brogden, now a prominent mental health awareness advocate and chair of Lifeline Australia, was also at the roundtable. For years he has shared openly his own journey with mental illness which included a suicide attempt.

“It was probably a decade ago, it was an in-camera session for a group of entrepreneurs, and I just looked at you and thought: ‘Thank you for having taken us on that walk through the valley of death with you, during an incredibly personal moment, and making it OK to own those deeply uncomfortable feelings of not only suicidal ideation but actually being there.’”

Calder’s realisation of her own mental illness came upon her suddenly, but she was better able to deal with it having heard others like Brogden share their difficulties.

“When I found myself in that situation for the first time in 30 years a couple of years ago – and I was on a bushwalk with my mother and I had this really strange thought come into my mind about the cliff in front of me – I went: ‘Oh my goodness, I know what’s happening’, I was able to… almost be the independent witness in that moment, and think back about all the things I’d heard from the other brave folk in the industry who had shared their own journey,” Calder said.

It was the pressure of her environment that had gotten her there, she said. She was living with children who were all struggling with mental health challenges.

With these experiences, Calder said the journey has been easier through Covid-19 than it would otherwise have been, thanks to her own openness, the help of friends, and support services moving to tele-counselling.

“No longer is this an isolated and a terrible, shameful burden we bear as a family, which is where I came into this journey as a parent five years ago when one of our children was first admitted to a psych unit,” Calder said.

“I’m now in a situation where, talking to that kid I’m saying: ‘Colin has invited me to do this thing, are you OK for me to share your journey,’ and he says: ‘Yes.’ And he’s happy for me to talk about, on his behalf, what it means to be a trans person, what employers can do to make their workplaces more friendly to all sorts of diversity.

“My son’s advice for employers is simple: be open minded, be respectful, ask and listen. Be ‘openly open minded’ about use of different pronouns at work. If someone asks to be addressed by a different name or changes their appearance, respect that. Managers should ask staff in transition what sort of support they need. And educate yourself so that as employer you know how to support them and make work a safe place. My son, as young as 12, experienced blatant homophobia and transphobia in school and in public. He just wants work to be safe.

“Never have I been more aware of the impact of discrimination on mental health levels in our country than the day that the same-sex marriage bill passed, and I was walking down Martin Place when I heard, and I burst into tears because I realised that our child’s whole future could now be different and better.”

Calder wants to see a greater national mental health agenda and a pro-active approach to education about mental illness, likening the current period to Australia in the 70s and 80s before sex education became widespread due to fears it would have a negative impact on society.

Ben Hurley is a journalist and editor with more than a decade of experience in the industry. He has written for The Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly, The Guardian and a range of specialised and industry publications.
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