Ann has a lived experience of mental health issues going back to her early 20’s, but her outlook on mental health and wellbeing completely changed when she was introduced to the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative (the Collaborative) several years ago.
“I had a breakdown seven years ago, and after that I became interested in mental health advocacy. I went to a workshop in Kiama and found out about the work of the Collaborative,” says Ann.
The Collaborative was established in 2015 to tackle suicide in the Illawarra Shoalhaven region. The Collaborative is driven by the voice and expertise of lived experience advocates, as well as over 40 organisations, including Grand Pacific Health, the University of Wollongong and Lifeline.
Ann grew up in Scarborough, a small town on the south coast of NSW and the region is very close to her heart. For Ann, being part of the Collaborative has given her a platform to be heard and make changes that will improve mental health and wellbeing in her local community. The Collaborative has also become an integral part of her healing.
“The Collaborative is not just about collecting data. They really value our input as people with a lived experience. When I go to a meeting, I feel like my voice matters as much as anyone in the room even if they have degrees as long as their arms!
“We all pick each other’s brains about the changes we would like to see, and then we try to implement them. Sometimes it can feel like things are moving slowly, but if it takes 50 years to break a system, you’re not going to fix it in 5 minutes. It’s about trying to piece all these issues together in a collaborative way,” says Ann.
Ann is working with the Collaborative to develop a ‘safe space’ in the region. The aim is to create a non-clinical, peer-led space where people can go during times of distress.
“In a nutshell, a ‘safe space’ is a place where people can go and feel welcome without pressure or judgement. When you’re in a deep, dark hole, you don’t necessarily want someone telling you what you should do. Sometimes you just want to be.
“To be able to go to a place where you can have control over your needs and be supported by someone that has had a similar experience – that would be like winning the lottery!” explains Ann.
The ‘safe space’ will be peer-led and staffed by people with a lived experience of suicide bereavement and recovery. This is key for Ann, who stresses the role that peer-to-peer relationships have had during her recovery.
“After I had my breakdown, my friend and her carer visited me every week. I said to her once, ‘I don’t think I would have gotten through this without you.’ She said to me ‘you’ve done all the work, I’ve just walked beside you,’” Ann recalls.
These days, between gardening and listening to music, Ann spends her time advocating for mental health reform and suicide prevention. She also makes time to support those around her.
“It’s a bit clichéd, but it’s all about taking the time to ask someone if they’re ok and actually listening to their response. When you offer someone an ear and a cup of tea, you make a difference in the community around you, no matter how small that community may be,” says Ann.