In an act of courage powered by a desperate plee for change, marine superintendent Jason Tulipan shares the story of how his mental illness caused him to lose everything and find rock bottom, and how he fought back.
To some, mental illness can be described as a feeling of isolation. A feeling of being alone, drifting in an ocean – no signs of refuge or familiarity can be seen on the horizon.
For Jason Tulipan, this was not just a metaphor, this was his reality.
At the age of 15, Jason quit his job as an apprentice electrician to follow his dreams to work on the sea.
He became one of the youngest tug masters off Dampier, and was also commanding shallow anchor handling tugs. At 24, he was well on his way to his dream to master a large supply vessel. Taking a break from the oil and gas industry, Jason became a pleasure boat captain in Dubai, returning to Australia at 30, where he spent 12 months at the Fremantle Maritime TAFE, senior master on supply and dive support vessels in Dampier, and progressing to Marine Superintendent and Project Manager for a well-known Australian marine operator.
The only way for me was to find that quick fix to mask the internal war of sickness, stress and emotions that I was trying to dampen inside of me.
Jason had worked hard to build himself an impressive career, despite quietly living with mental illness.
“I had never been aware of what mental illness was, nor the signs. It was a few years after a fatal car crash that happened when I was 17 that I had my first episode with mental illness,” Jason says.
“I was on my way to the shops with my girlfriend and we were in the carpark of a shopping centre and while still in the car, started to feel overcome with fear and dread like I was unable to breath.
“It was at that time that my body started to convulse and I was unable to process the emotions that I was feeling and in a terrible state of confusion.
“I was very fortunate that our family doctor was within viewing distance of the carpark and able to see him straight away and I was flown to Perth for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
With mental illness somewhat a taboo topic at this stage, Jason had no one to talk to in his workplace, leaving him to suffer in silence.
“The only references to mental illness were generally negative ones and so if you had a mental health issue people assumed you were either psychotic and dangerous. It was very hard for people at work to know how to deal with someone who had gone from well to unwell from a mental illness,” he says.
Jason turned to alcohol and over-the-counter drugs to help him cope with his building stress.
“I was doing whatever I could to handle the day’s pressures of marine superintendent,” he says.
“It was like a never-ending process of self-medicating to handle the day, and then unwind with alcohol or try to find the ‘off’ button, only to wake early and start the process again either by the early alarm or problem phone call which required me to wake up running.
“The only way for me was to find that quick fix to mask the internal war of sickness, stress and emotions that I was trying to dampen inside of me.”
Jason’s coping mechanisms became destructive, the wall he had built up quickly came crashing down.
“It all eventually came to a head when I was overseas with a supply vessel that had a tow bridle in its propeller and was unable to meet insurance requirements to tow… causing a delay in a multi-million dollar contract.
“I started really falling apart and became withdrawn and unable to speak to my boss by voice and emailed all my correspondence. My emails reflected that I was on top of things, when in fact I was losing myself and the contract.
“A combination of my drinking, drug use and stress had caused me to have a psychotic episode.”
“Then it happened. I can’t really remember how – I just remember getting on a plane to go home and then the next thing I know I’m waking up in hospital. A combination of my drinking, drug use and stress had caused me to have a psychotic episode.”
Jason had no choice but to resign, he lost his home and he was forced to live in his car. But brick by brick, he started to rebuild his life. But, he was no longer alone.
Jason fell in love, moved to the country where his now-wife opened a cafe which they ran together. The country air, coffee beans and someone to hold his hand through the dark times proved to be the best medicine.
But it took a death in the family to truly snap Jason out of his state, and get him back on track.
“It was not until moving in with my mother for six months and helping her partner pass over from a brain tumour that I was able to look at not self-medicating and stop drinking. I was really able to see that life was possible without anything to mask the problems and started to unconditionally deal and feel my problems with medical and self-help methods.
“I was then confident enough to look at getting back into the oil and gas, however I had a few issues to deal with as there was self-conceived stigma/embarrassment and some hesitation from the industry due to my public problems and apart from that, all of my qualifications required revalidation by the way of stringent medicals and oral exams.”
A marine manning company gave Jason a chance to get back on the horse, or boat, and he climbed back up the ladder from second mate to chief mate, master and marine superintendent.
Now, Jason uses his struggle with mental illness to raise awareness and help others in the same boat.
“My story isn’t unique and since recovering I wanted to share my experience and knowledge of what it takes to deal with mental illness with others,” he says.
“For quite a long while I was regarded as a high-achiever and excellent problem-solver, but was able to mask my problems without any issues or anyone questioning my ability to carry out my role. That’s the thing that we don’t realise, is that you can hide it only for a certain period until something gives, and the longer you hold it all in, the more damage you are doing to yourself.
“Every day I internally managed my problems I slowly became sicker and sicker by not dealing with it.
“There is a general lack of awareness in the community and I don’t think its industry specific. When you work in the oil and gas and mining industries however, you do tend to work mostly with other men so there are no opportunities to let our guard down.
“Stigma is the biggest challenge facing any industry that wants to tackle workforce mental health – nobody will put up their hand if it means being seen as weak and potentially bullied or that they think they will lose their job as a result.
“This is a genuine problem and an understandable reason to stay quiet for men.”
Jason says the industry needs a change, and the battle against mental health problems will not be won until it can be spoken about and treated like any other health and safety issue.
“Stigma and lack of awareness about mental illness is what needs to change most. With that half the battle will be won.
“The other thing is education for staff in key positions. When managers, supervisors, masters and other leaders know how to manage mental health in the workplace more people will be willing to put up their hand and ask for help.
“The implementation of any mental health aware and training in the workplace is up against similar headaches and negative feedback that the implementation of safety management systems introduced back 10 and 20 years ago.
“If I was able to talk to the marine superintendent… I would have begged him to seek help for the self-medicating and the masking of issues.
“The biggest thing was how hard I was making my job and destroying my life back then by not speaking about it and seeking the many treatments available today – to enable that, we need to have process and methods for all employees to feel comfortable to seek help and to start to look at any issues they may have with their own mental health, and what good mental health looks like.”
Last year, Jason discovered the Workplace Accreditation Program (WAP) developed by the Australian Medical Association in Western Australia.
The WAP program uses a combination of strategic planning, training and best practice principles to assist employers integrate best practice standards in mental health into their existing safety management systems.
Farstad Shipping Offshore Simulation Training (FSOSC) and the AMA (WA) have formed an alliance to provide mental health training to industry via the Workplace Accreditation Program, and Jason works as a contract Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor, helping businesses and people in the oil and gas industry build mental health management systems, that include rather than ignore mental health.
Australian Medical Association
The Australian Medical Association(AMA) is the most influential membership organisation representing registered medical practitioners and medical students of Australia.
The AMA exists to promote and protect the professional interests of doctors and the health care needs of patients and communities.
For more information, visit ama.com.au.