Through managing her mental health issues for 14 years, Erin has learned that her thoughts, concerns and past experiences are essential to her recovery.
First diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 14 years old, Erin was assigned a treatment plan that made her feel like her clinicians were treating a physical illness.
“There was a mentality that you would take the medication, go to therapy, and then you’ll be cured.
“It was really confusing for me, because I was taking my tablets, attending my therapy and I wasn’t getting better, and I didn’t know why. There weren’t a lot of questions about what I wanted or what I thought would help.”
Throughout her teens and into her twenties, Erin’s psychiatrists didn’t always know how to help her, and she was hospitalised several times. At 25, she relocated to the Central Coast after leaving a career as a teacher, which had caused her a lot of anxiety.
“When I was hospitalised following my move to the Coast, it was the trigger to my transformation. I made a commitment to myself that I was going to address my mental health as well as I could, and make it work.”
Erin heard about Central Coast ARAFMI, a community organisation that supports carers, and friends and family of people living with a mental illness. She took a student placement in their team while studying for a Diploma of Child, Youth and Family Intervention.
“Learning about recovery made a huge difference for me. Rather than being weak for having mental health issues, I was told that I have strength for still being here. I was encouraged to try and understand myself better and how my mind works.
“By making decisions using my own knowledge of what was best for me, rather than only doing as I was told, I became more invested in my recovery and now understand that I can have the tools to help myself when I need to. I know that the people in my life are resources who can support me if I need them, but I also know that there are a lot of times that I can rely on myself to overcome issues.”
This self-determination also carried over to Erin’s clinical treatment.
“I have the power to say if something isn’t working for me. If the psychologist or psychiatrist I’m talking to does not respect that, then the fit isn’t right and they won’t be part of my treating team.”
Erin is now 28 years old and a Peer Worker with Central Coast ARAFMI. Her role involves everything from project management, facilitating a consumer and carer consultation group, running a social group for young adults with mental illness (called THRIVE), and training and development for staff.
“The attitude of the team and the people we work with is why I have stayed with ARAFMI. My experience with mental illness is seen as a weakness by some, but to my team, it’s an asset and enriches the work that I do. The organisation is also very supportive with flexible working hours and giving me what I need. My team know I have so much to offer, and with a little bit of support from them, I can do great things.”
There are a range of approaches that Erin has woven into her life to stay well.
“Being self-aware is definitely the main thing that keeps me well. I know my warning signs. For example, I have obsessive compulsive tendencies and I’ve learned to recognise when these begin.
“Breaking down big tasks into little tasks helps me get through tough days. If leaving the house seems overwhelming, I can start with taking a shower, then getting dressed, instead of looking at it as one big obstacle to overcome.
“I tend to default into not socialising, so I make sure to schedule social activities into my calendar at least once a fortnight. If I’ve made a commitment and it’s in my calendar, even if I do it months in advance, I’m much more likely to stick to it.”
In the future, Erin hopes to see the expansion of the peer workforce in NSW.
“I think we need to recognise that peer workers each have completely different talents and strengths. There shouldn’t be just one role for peer workers, they should be embedded across the organisation and be involved in marketing, training, and group facilitation, to name a few areas. I’d also like to see greater collaboration and partnerships between peer workers and the rest of the mental health system.
“We need to take the idea of what a peer worker is and really challenge that,” Erin says.