WHENEVER teenager Gracie Garrahy decides to brave the outside world, her best mate Sebastian is right beside her.
Sebastian is an assistance dog receiving training to support his owner, Miss Garrahy, an 18-year-old who is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and manic depression.
“Before I got him, I wouldn’t go out of the house, I wouldn’t interact with other people,” she said.
“Mental illness was taking over my whole life.”
She describes her day-to-day life as “intense” where “your brain feels like you’re out of control”.
A former student from St Teresa’s Catholic College, Noosa, Miss Garrahy struggled with anxiety for most of her childhood, but her mental health worsened when she started high school.
“When I was younger I had lots of friends around me with mental health issues and I wanted to help them,” she said.
“It was me being caring and I just cared too much.
“It took a toll on me and I began to develop unhealthy friendships and things started to go downhill from there.”
Miss Garrahy found help at a local organisation but was admitted to the public health system when her mental illness was found to be more severe.
In 2015, she took a year off from school to deal with her anxiety, which was affecting her physical health and safety.
“I was going to drop out in Grade 11 because it was getting too difficult for me, but a good teacher helped me to do my school work at home,” Miss Garrahy said.
“I managed to finish school.”
Despite reaching that milestone, Miss Garrahy’s mental health was declining.
She was hospitalised for three months last year and received therapies designed to help her recover – but nothing seemed to work.
“They were running out of options for me and that’s where we had the idea of getting an assistance dog,” Miss Garrahy said.
In Australia, assistance dogs are specially trained to support people with a disability, including those with psychiatric problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.
They can learn to do more than 50 assistive tasks, and are protected under the Guide, Hearing and Assistance Dogs Act 2009.
Miss Garrahy received Sebastian the day she was discharged from hospital in July last year with help from her parents, former members of Brisbane’s Emmanuel Community.
Sebastian is required to undergo 18 months of training with Miss Garrahy and specialists from the Australian Companion and Assistance Dogs, an organisation on the Sunshine Coast.
Last month Sebastian passed his first public access test inside a local shopping centre and is now a certified assistance dog.
When Sebastian is more mature, he will be able to smell any chemical changes occurring in Miss Garrahy’s body and protect her from any potential danger.
While there is time before she makes a full recovery, including receiving dialectical behaviour therapy to treat her illness, Miss Garrahy said, with Sebastian, “it’s amazing how far I’ve come”.
But she warned that mental illness was destroying the lives of other people, including friends who lost their lives to suicide.
Mental illness is also the number-one issue identified in a new national survey for younger people.
Last week Mission Australia released data from a national survey of 24,000 people aged 15 to 19 to get an insight into their aspirations, values, concerns and ambitions. The survey found the main concern for one-third of the young people surveyed, about 33.7 per cent, was mental health.
That is more than double the number of young people who identified mental illness as a concern in Mission Australia’s 2015 survey.
Mission Australia chief executive officer James Toomey said the figures showed much more needed to be done to support young people with a mental illness.
“Young people need a co-ordinated, comprehensive and cohesive national response to ensure they can access the right mental health supports when they need them,” Mr Toomey said.
“It makes sense to invest in universal mental health programs in schools, as well as community-based mental health services, and to design services with young people to ensure they are youth-friendly.”
And that is exactly what Miss Garrahy intends to do if and when she makes a full recovery with her best friend.
“I want to work in mental health with adolescents and kids struggling with their illness,” she said.
“I know how much needs to change, seeing how little there is for teenagers with a mental illness. “Everyday people are trying to make a change in the mental health system but there’s a long way to go.”