'Life-saver' mental health program at Sutherland hospital brings back joy

Joy returns: Karina and Scott Whitehurst. Picture: Jane Dyson
Joy returns: Karina and Scott Whitehurst. Picture: Jane Dyson

A MENAI mother says a mental health program pioneered at Sutherland Hospital was a "life-saver" as she battled an illness that was widely perceived to be incurable.

NSW Mental Health Minister Jai Rowell visited the hospital to announce $1.8 million in funding to expand Project Air, which trains staff to diagnose and treat patients with complex personality disorders.

The project name comes from air "symbolising life and hope, and being light yet powerful".

Karina Whitehurst told the gathering she initially felt "doomed" after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder by doctors in the hospital's mental health unit.

However, after taking part in Project Air, which began as a pilot program, she rediscovered the joy of living.

Ms Whitehurst said her husband Scott and daughter Holly-Mae, 18, had benefited enormously from her improvement.

‘‘It takes time and determination and you really have to work at it, but you can get better,’’ she said.

Ms Whitehurst said she was taught a set of skills to cope with severe swings in emotions and super sensitivity.

‘‘When I was first diagnosed at 40, five years ago, I went home and Googled borderline personality disorder,’’ she said.

‘‘I honestly thought I was doomed because there was this stigma and part of the stigma was that we were untreatable.

‘‘That view is slowly changing and Project Air is helping with that.’’

Ms Whitehurst grew up in a family with mental illness and her mother committed suicide a year ago.

‘‘I was diagnosed with bulimia and depression at 17 and bipolar at 32,’’ Ms Whitehurst said.

‘‘I understood the bipolar intimately and what I needed to do to keep it in line, but there was always another dark shadow within me,’’ she said.

Ms Whitehurst said her husband felt there had to be ‘‘something else other than the bipolar’’ and they were thankful when doctors at Sutherland Hospital finally identified it.

Project Air director Brin Grenyer said about 6.5 percent of the Australian population had a diagnosable personality disorder, although the vast majority went undiagnosed.

Of the 33,000 admissions to NSW mental health units each year, about one in six involved people diagnosed with a personality disorder, he said.

Professor Grenyer said Project Air had made frontline staff more confident in their treatment of these disorders and there had been significant improvements in the mental health of those being treated.


Karina Whitehurst said relationships and marriage for many people battling complex personality disorders failed because carers didn’t receive the support they needed.

‘‘We push people away because we are afraid of emotional pain and human interaction,’’ she said.

‘‘I just picked a winner with Scott, he’s an angel.’’

Mr Whitehurst said he believed there were many other ‘‘lost people out there, who are misdiagnosed or undiagnosed’’.

‘‘The stigma makes people afraid to come forward,’’ he said.

‘‘It is lifting, but a lot more work has to be done.’’

Their daughter Holly-Mae said family life had become much better.

‘‘I can’t really explain it — Mum is just completely different,’’ she said.

 Has Project Air helped you or a loved one?