A huge turning point in Kim Vo’s journey of living with mental illness came when he landed a job.
“I was thrown in the deep end. I had been unemployed for a long time but one of the requirements of Centrelink was to get work. I ended up working at a restaurant where I was forced to interact with people, talk to customers and take orders. It wasn’t the best paying but it gave me purpose and drive and got my mind ticking over again.”
The achievement meant all the more to Kim because it came after many years of being unwell. He lives with paranoid schizophrenia and depression, and his early 20s saw him cycling in and out of mental health inpatient units, sometimes for involuntary admissions.
It was a painful period for Kim and his family.
“I come from a non-English speaking background – my parents came over from Vietnam during the war – and they had a really hard time trying to understand what was going on for me. They struggled a lot when I was admitted. In Vietnam there is no word or concept for mental health, and I’m the only one in my extended family who has experienced a serious mental health issue.”
There were no Vietnamese-speaking health workers at the services Kim accessed, so he translated as much information as he could for his parents. But Kim admits his Vietnamese speaking skills are limited and if he had his time over, he would make more use of interpreters.
Despite all the barriers they faced, Kim’s family supported him in all the ways they could.
“My mum would come to hospital every day and drop off dinner. When I had a few hours leave from the hospital, she’d come pick me up, we’d eat at home, and she’d take me back. She was a huge part of my recovery and I couldn’t have done it without her and the rest of my family.”
Over the course of his hospitalisations, Kim tried “four or five” medications that didn’t provide any relief. Then finally, Kim and his treating team found one that “settled down my racing thoughts and settled down the voices”. Over time, it gave Kim the ability to pursue the things he loves and that help keep him well, like work, sleep, going fishing and having time to himself.
Today, Kim is employed as a peer worker with South Western Sydney Local Health District’s Macarthur Assertive Treatment Team, going out into the community every day to meet people with mental health issues and “support them in whatever they want to do”. He is proud to have found his career path.
“It’s about having your say in the person’s care and being part of trying to achieve the best outcomes you can for them,” Kim says.
He started in the role in 2015 after a peer worker encouraged him to apply and has since completed his Certificate IV in Mental Health and is part way through his Certificate IV in Peer Work. While the work has been a “big learning curve”, Kim says he’s had great support from his employer and colleagues, particularly a fellow peer worker who has been a confidant and two clinicians who “really took me under their wing”.
“They’ve guided me through the processes and the jargon. For example, we’d be in a meeting and everyone’s talking about a CTO [community treatment order]. What’s a CTO? I had no idea. I would write it down and ask them later. They always took time to explain it."
Kim’s hopes for the future include one day doing peer work in other countries, such as Canada or the UK, where the profession is more established. But he’s also keen to acknowledge that his own journey with recovery continues.
“I’m still dealing with my own things at the moment. I’m not perfect. My mental illness has definitely left its mark. But if you can get a hold of it, it galvanises you. It gives you something that other people don’t have.”