This story is part of a series written by mental health carers in which they share how they became participants, influencers and leaders in the NSW mental health sector, in hopes of encouraging other carers to do the same. See the full series, and learn more about the project.
My pathway has been a long and winding road and has been a huge learning experience for me. Often the most difficult challenges we face provide the greatest opportunities to learn and grow.
If asked to give advice to other mental health carers, I would begin by saying that everyone’s path is individual and that the magic element has been time. No matter how much effort we put into learning and strategies, we are not in control of everything, but so long as you are moving in a positive direction and maintain your health and spirit, things do tend work out in the end.
I spent many years of ‘groundhog day’ caring for my son who was under a community treatment order for most of that time. I received counselling and had what I would consider a good communicative relationship with the mental health team. During this period, as someone with a community minded background, I became a committee member of my local carer support organisation. This then led to me becoming a board member of the peak organisation.
The organisations provided me with many opportunities to grow and develop my skills. But most importantly provided me with the opportunity to attend mental health conferences and forums. I was able to meet others in my circumstances, hear the latest developments within the sector, learn more about the range of services available and hear recovery stories from people with a lived experience of mental illness, with the latter being the most eye opening!
I had also enrolled in the Certificate IV in Mental Health and Alcohol and Other Drugs with the hope that I may be able to use them to assist my son, who was reluctant to engage with services and who I despaired was not receiving the support I felt he needed. I remember turning up to the first class very sceptical of this concept of “recovery”, but as I learned more and heard the stories from the conferences I began to have hope. I also realised that in my support, which usually related to ‘rescuing’ my son, I was most likely enabling him to continue his self-destructive path and preventing him from learning the consequences of his actions. I was treating him like an invalid and not as an adult who could take responsibility for himself. The drain on my resources, both financial and emotional, was immense. I made the decision, in consultation with the community mental health team, to draw back and put my energy into more productive pursuits.
Over the last 15 years much has changed in regard to community knowledge and awareness of mental health. What I learned through this period was that there were developments around policy and guidelines for the treatment of mental illness that didn’t necessarily translate to the community support required. I have since been actively engaged in system change.
I achieve this through my role on boards, on carer and consumer advisory committees, via TAFE teaching, and by undertaking voluntary roles which allow me to utilise my engagement skills and achieve first-hand experience of working with people with a lived experience of mental illness. What I have learned from the challenges I have experienced has enabled me to help others and lead an interesting, purposeful life.
Also, my son and I have now reconnected. He has matured, is now in the initial stages of embracing the concept of recovery and we have healthy boundaries in place. It is the kind of relationship we all wish to have with our adult children.
My thoughts and best wishes for all mental health carers and those they care for.