What Spence’s break down on The Block teaches us about mental illness

If you are one of the 980,000 Australians who tune in to watch renovation show The Block on weeknights, then you would have seen 46-year-old contestant Spence’s brave confessional about his struggle with depression this week.

“I’ve had depression over the years, anxiety and that sort of stuff. And I’ve been shown coping mechanisms to deal with it. But I never expected anything that happened, that complete shut down,” he said.

“The thoughts that go through your head were super dark thoughts. It all builds up, builds up, builds up and it’s just like, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here.”

Prestige builder Spence and his wife Kerrie has been a solid unit since week one on the reality TV show. However, after an intense and pressure filled few weeks, they seemed to break down* when they found out they had to replace certain parts of their roof. They shared with TV show host Scott Cam that having to re-do this task was too much on top of everything else, and considered walking off the show.

“You just keep pushing through, but the tireder you get, from no sleep and physical work, the worse it gets,” Spence told the camera.

Spence showed insurmountable bravery in coming forward about his own struggle with mental illness, later sharing that he had seen a psychologist about it.

We know that a hyper-reality environment like The Block may not always reflect reality, but in this case, it definitely did. And Spence isn’t the first reality TV contestant to open up about mental health. His fellow contestant Jess recently shared that she had also experienced post-natal depression.

While we’re not trying to renovate a room in 6 days with a camera in our faces, anyone who has struggled with mental illness will tell you that they feel the same sort of pressure and heaviness these contestants have expressed.

And as we watched The Block, we realised there were a few takeaways that could help all of us when it comes to mental illness and supporting the ones we love. Here are four things this week’s episode of the Block taught us about the reality of mental illness:

1.Mental illness doesn’t discriminate

Spence is a successful builder and happily married man, and he and Kerrie have been a likeable team on The Block since day one. But struggling with mental illness isn’t contingent on your gender, age, relationships status or success. Mental illness can affect anyone—in fact 1 in 5 Aussies ages between 16-65 live with it everyday.

As a male who understandably struggled to show his emotions so readily on camera, Spencer also highlights how many men refrain from speaking up and asking for help when they experience mental illness. The Black Dog Institute tells us that 72% of men don’t seek help for mental disorders, and men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women. This is largely because society expects men to ‘man up’ and get on with life, rather than actively express their emotions and ask for help.

Spence’s bravery has made him a great model for men of all ages to open up to their loved ones and admit when they are struggling. It doesn’t make them less masculine, just brave.

2. Relapse is real

When Kerrie opened up about Spence’s history with depression, she shared that he had mentioned it casually when they started seeing each other, but she had left it be because he showed no signs of mental illness and he didn’t want to elaborate. 8 years later when he relapsed on TV, she was able to walk through the struggle with him and they could support each other.

Relapse is a very real aspect of mental illness. Just because someone hasn’t shown symptoms of depression or anxiety for years doesn’t mean they won’t experience it again down the line. In this case, Spence’s mental health was degraded due to the bizarre and intense lifestyle of The Block. His relapse didn’t make his years in recovery any less valid, or take away from the solid relationship he had built with Kerrie since then. It was just a sign that he needed to seek help once again to become well.

3, Friends and family are vital in recovery

As we watched Spence try to manage his mental health on TV, it was clear that Kerrie was instrumental to his health and recovery. They worked and acted like a team; making decisions together and taking an active interest in each other’s well being.

To a lesser extent, we saw their fellow teams also take an interest in the mental health of Spence and Kerrie. Many recognised the couple as friends, and spoke about their increasing concern for their health and wellbeing.

Sure, confessionals don’t happen in real life, but the premise that our family and friends will notice our struggles first is very real. If you have noticed a change in the behaviour, demeanour or mood of someone you live with, work with or do life with, ask them if they are okay. You can encourage them to seek professional help and support them as they get better.

4. Professional help is important

Over the years Spence has been taught strategies and ways to deal with depression and anxiety, but sometimes we still need a helping hand when we relapse into mental illness. He took the time to find a psychologist who was able to give him perspective outside of the TV show, and help him to put his health first.

While Spence and Kerrie ultimately decided to stay on The Block, their openness to seek help means they can now seek the support they need during and once the show ends.

If you are in crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

*The term ‘break down’ is often used negatively, inferring that someone is ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ for experiencing emotional fall out. In this case, we are referring to the emotional and physical response a person has when they undergo significant mental health issues. It is not a sign of weakness or unworthiness, but a normal human experience.