From international fashion designer to mental health campaigner

Aurelio Costarella
Aurelio Costarella

Aurelio Costarella is a WA style icon, with a 34-year career, earning him international acclaim.

He’s designed gowns for local and international celebrities including Rihanna, Dita Von Teese, Tyra Banks, Nicole Scherzinger, Melissa George, Geri Halliwell, Tina Arena, Dannii Minogue, Jennifer Hawkins, Emma Booth and Naya Rivera.

He’s also been in the depths of despair, battling prescribed drug dependency for depression and anxiety which forced him to walk away from the fashion industry.

Aurelio spent 51 weeks in Perth Clinic, was prescribed 23 different medications and has spent three years trying to shake off dependency on them, but now he’s found purpose in helping others overcome prescribed drug dependency and depression.

Medication is a trap too many fall into, he says, and it’s not an issue restricted to younger people.

Aurelio has joined the Mental Health Association of WA to lobby for more investment to provide preventative and community support for mental health patients.

He has been an ambassador for Lifeline for the past six years and has also joined the board of Disability and Diversity in the Arts (DADAA) which provide services to people with mental health issues, mostly around creative services and the performing arts.

In a bid to raise awareness around informed consent and patient safety in the mental health/prescribing space, Aurelio is establishing an incorporated association to counter the harm that he and thousands of other have experienced in the system.

“As people get older, they can experience higher levels of psychological distress,” Aurelio says.

“A great number of things contribute to mental health issues of people who may not have had a lived experience earlier in life.

“Midlife is often associated with unhappy events: the empty nest syndrome, menopause, infidelity, financial concerns, a growing sense of mortality, and general unhappiness with the daily grind.” 

Key contributors to emotional distress later in life can include the death of a partner or child; end of a marriage or relationship; financial issues – loss of a job, drop in income due to retirement; loss of self-esteem, often based on the loss of work, a business or the inability to find meaningful work; chronic illness; or an inability to live independently.

“These factors may lead to social isolation and/or loneliness, loss of independence and increased psychological distress.”

Aurelio says it’s also important to note the prevalence of high and very high levels of psychological distress in women aged 45 – 54.

“I know that’s been true for me because I’m the world’s worst person when it comes to asking for support from people around me.

Suicide rates are highest amongst men in the 45 to 49 age group and for women in the 50 to 54 age group. Suicide rates for both men and women peak again at age 80 to 84.

Aurelio says self-nurturing and having tools in place to get through those difficult periods is very important.

“Mindfulness is a useful tool, although it is much maligned now because it comes from that Buddhist tradition of mediating.

“A lot of people aren’t able to quieten their mind and struggle to meditate, but it is actually a powerful tool for anyone dealing with any form of mental health issue.”

He says it is important that young people are introduced to these tools because otherwise later in life, when they might be in their fifties they don’t know how to deal with these situations.

“In my family, nothing was ever talked about, everything was brushed under the carpet.

“And that goes to the issue of people getting older – and that was something I saw a lot of at the Perth Clinic, people who I met in their 70s or 80s – and were dealing with the reality of getting to that – which in itself is something they really struggle with, which is completely understandable.

“But how do we deal with it?

“A lot of people don’t know how to ask for help. If you’ve never been good at it, you get to a certain point in your life where you just don’t ask for help because it’s not something you’ve been conditioned to do.

“I know that’s been true for me because I’m the world’s worst person when it comes to asking for support from people around me.

“I know that they are there and that if I reach out people will step up and want to be there for me, but I’m still not good at it.”

Aurelio says human connection is really important. This is where community support centres are great.

“You have people who are community oriented, who need their connections, whether that’s going to quiz nights or to the bingo, it’s all about connection.

“I saw that with my mum after my dad passed away. She was still living in the family home on her own and she was struggling.

“Between my brother and sister and I, we were there every day supporting her, but it was very clear to us that she needed to move into care. But it was not something she was open to until she actually raised it and said: “look, you’re all working so hard to keep me here, and I think it’s time now.”

“I’d go to visit her every day, go in the morning before work and get her breakfast and then straight after work and get her dinner on and we’d be sitting there in the same chair every day – and she’d be just looking completely miserable.

“As hard as it was getting her into care, once she was there she flourished. She became a completely different person connecting with other residents or the staff.

“Reach out to Lifeline if you are feeling they need crisis support, but there is also a real need for peer support groups with people who have lived experience, whether that’s through mental health issues or issues around suicidal ideation – people who have experienced grief.

“There’s nothing more powerful than speaking to people who have been where you are now and I’m sure there are support groups out there – and if there aren’t there should be, because you’re not getting that level of support in aged care.

“That was an interesting piece for me with my parents. Social works, counsellors, there was nothing, certainly nothing visible and they were never offered any services and surely that’s a really important part of that process.

“So if it’s not happening in aged care, where are these facilities to provide wrap around services?

“If you are living at home and you are in the community there are community-based programs that you can reach out to. Or just meet with people once a week for morning tea or a lamington and a cup of coffee. 

“It is important just to have that connection with other people who have gone through or are going through similar experiences,” he says.

For help ring Lifeline WA, 13 11 14.

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Journalist and public relations specialist Allen Newton has worked across major media organisations in Western Australia and PR locally and internationally. He and wife Helen Ganska operate Newton Ganska Communications. Allen started his journalism career at the long defunct Sunday Independent and went on to become the founding editor for news website PerthNow, Managing Editor of The Sunday Times and PerthNow and then Editor-In-Chief of news website WAtoday. As well as news, he has been an editor of food and wine, real estate, TV and travel sections. He’s done everything from co-hosting a local ABC television pop show, to editing a pop music section called Breakout with Big Al, and publishing his own media and marketing magazine.