Showcasing: Connections Program, Broken Hill, Far West NSW

Region
Western NSW 

Lead agency
Mission Australia partnered with the Far West Local Health District

Living Well domains

  • Making it local
  • Putting People First 
Consumer and Carers Action Group

Program Overview

'Connections' is an innovative partnership program between Mission Australia and the Far West Local Health District Mental Health and Drug and Alcohol Service (FWLHD MHDA). It is an out-of-hours social connection program, wholly staffed by peer support workers who have a lived experience of mental health issues. The Peer support workers are employed by Mission Australia and supported by both organisations. 
The program started in 2017 and has assisted over 140 people. Initially funded by a Ministry of Health Innovation Grant, funding is now generously provided by Peter Ivany AM and Sharon Ivany and NSW Health. 
 

Challenge

Loneliness is increasingly recognised as having a strong negative impact on mental health. Many people are more isolated in the evening and on weekends, yet most mental health programs run during the day, leaving people on their own when the sun goes down. This is a particular issue in Broken Hill, given that extremely limited services are available outside business hours, creating a reliance on emergency and crisis services.


A recent study conducted by the Australian Psychological Society, found that one in four Australians report feeling lonely or disconnected1.  Higher levels of loneliness were linked with higher levels of social anxiety and low exposure to social interaction resulted in poorer psychological wellbeing and poorer quality of life.

Solution

To address this issue, Mission Australia and the FWLHD, in partnership with lived experience and family and carer groups, co-designed the Connections program. 
Connections aims to:

  1. Reduce social isolation by supporting people to develop a network within their community and outside of formal services 
  2. Provide an informal, non-clinical after-hours support service for socially isolated people when no other services are open locally to provide that face-to-face support
  3. Reduce reliance on after hours’ crisis support.

Connections provides people living in Far West NSW with a road to optimal wellbeing and a bridge between inpatient services and the community. Importantly, the program is staffed entirely by a team of peer support workers. 
Connections has been modelled with people with lived experience of mental health issues and program participants at the centre. Peer support workers consulted with peers and services to design and implement the program and now deliver the service to the community.

 

Connections runs Thursday to Saturday evenings plus every second Sunday. A coffee group is also held on Monday mornings. 
All activities are planned at a bi-monthly planning day. Program participants encouraged to contribute to the event calendar development. The program includes social outings like going to the movies, gym, art gallery openings and cafes. This encourages friendships, connections to the community and reduces reliance or dependency on the Connections program itself. 
FWLHD and Mission Australia have a strong partnership cemented by mutual values. A steering group guides the program. The partners make funding decisions and with the peer support workers recruit other peer support workers. 

Outcomes

Connections has met its aims as follows: 

  1. Over 140 people have accessed Connections with attendance trending up. Attendance has increased confidence, hope, connection, friendships and a sense of belonging to their own community for participants.
  2. The service has provided an after-hours service consistently since 2017.
  3. Emergency department presentations in the first six months reduced substantially based on a comparative analysis of the five most frequent attenders (decrease of 80%). The Connections program has also decreased inpatient days by 65%, as measured by whole-of-hospital data.

Feedback from participants has been extremely positive, for example: 

“The Connections program is incredibly wonderful; there is a real atmosphere of friendliness, harmony and a sense of shared journey amongst the participants”

 

To demonstrate how the organisations work collaboratively, one participant observed:

“My whole life, well, my previous life, I was happily a lone wolf. However, as my new life unfolds, I have made some lovely new friendships in Broken Hill, community connections I would call them … Every aspect, every minute of my rehabilitation path has been filled with kindness, wisdom, respect, positivity and care. The Emergency Department, Mental Health Inpatient Unit, Recovery Centre and now Connections have all in their own way played key roles in establishing, and maintaining, my new life. I could never differentiate between each department or organisation. All I can say is that the good work of one was enhanced and reinforced by the next along the way…”

The Connections program was also lucky enough to be awarded the Outstanding Achievement in Mental Health Promotion Award when the Mental Health Month Awards were announced in September 2019 ahead of NSW Mental Health Month, which is run by WayAhead. 

Next Steps

The Connections program highlights how integral peer support is to the health and primary care system. Knowing you are not alone in your community and your journey is empowering. The need for human contact and social interaction is evident. Programs like Connections are needed and provide people with the support they require, especially after hours and on weekends, to reduce the impact of the growing issue of loneliness in Australia. 


For now, Connections will continue to support the Broken Hill Community with support from FWLHD and funding generously provided by Peter Ivany AM and Sharon Ivany and NSW Health.  

 

References

1 Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology, 2018, Australian Loneliness Report: a survey exploring the loneliness levels of Australians and the impact on their health and wellbeing. Viewed https://psychweek.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Psychology-Week-2018-Australian-Loneliness-Report-1.pdf, accessed on 5/5/2020.