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.
As a child, I was extremely shy and sent to drama classes, so I would gain confidence and participate better in school. I was also very uncoordinated, always falling and very poor at sports, so I was sent to dance classes. It seemed natural to me to be the way I was, despite the difficulties it caused. What a difference it made to me when my eyes were tested in school and I received glasses! I was still shy, but I participated more in class because I could read the board at the front and my coordination improved because I could see where to throw a ball.
Also as a child, part of my role in my family and cultural community was supporting family members who were experiencing mental ill health and other disabilities. I was not aware of the term ‘carer’ or ‘young carer’. It seemed natural to me to have many responsibilities for taking care of the house and the family in addition to my dance and drama practices and school work, despite the extra workload.
As an adolescent, it seemed natural to continue my pathway of supporting family members and friends experiencing mental distress, even though my own distressed response to personal trauma was affecting my mental health.
Later, as an adult, I had others see potential in me that I could not see in myself. Having others believe in me has been an important part of my journey. Their encouragement to become involved in improving health systems for carers and consumers has helped me participate in ways I never would have thought natural for me.
Going to training that was run by peers and who modelled what to do inspired me further. Having peers who have mentored me has built my confidence and skills in writing applications and addressing criteria, personal and systemic advocacy, and negotiation. Now it seems natural to be involved in mentoring and encouraging others. Encouragement is vital to help us stay involved in processes that are discouraging.
By attending, then assisting and eventually leading peer support groups and training/education courses, I gradually learned how to identify and speak up for my own needs and to improve my skills for self -advocacy and encouraging recovery in others. I had further training to become a peer facilitator and peer worker drawing on both my many years of lived experience as a family carer and as a person with my own mental health recovery journey.
For many years I’ve been involved helping family carers, health workers and people experiencing mental health issues to understand about mental health and wellbeing and to navigate the various systems. Encouraging hope, self-care, resilience and recovery is an important part of this pathway. Learning how to share my personal experiences in a way that would be effective and not traumatising to others has been valuable in this process.
Now it seems natural for me to combine my training and work in many different areas - including education, research, communications, dance, drama, dance/movement therapy and counselling - together with my peer training and participation in mental health advocacy to influence positive changes at many levels.
My lifetime of lived experience with family, friends and personal experiences has included many of the issues in the wider community; a variety of mental health issues, disabilities, chronic health problems, suicidality, homelessness, substance abuse, and other kinds of abuse and domestic violence.
My journey has included living in urban and now a country area, in public housing with continuing family responsibilities, my own recovery process, stigma, discrimination and minimal employment. Through many difficult circumstances, I am using what I’ve learned combined with extensive networks to inform my involvement as a lived experience representative and leader in NSW and nationally.
Establishing a wide network of peers and other workers in NSW and across the country that I can consult with has assisted me to advocate in an informed way beyond my own personal experience. These networks have been necessary for collaborative health and peer workforce curriculum development, workforce capacity development, combined consumer and carer written resources, technical working groups, research and evidence, safety and quality issues, mentoring and encouraging peers. I continue my development as a leader via my involvement on boards of directors, advisories, consultations and steering groups, training clinicians and peer training.
Internationally, I’m involved at the request of an African foundation in the co-creation of their culturally and spiritually appropriate dance/ movement therapy recovery programs for women and children who live in a Nairobi slum and are survivors of sexual and gender abuse. This project also includes co-creating training for peer facilitators of the programs. Eventually we hope this peer-led dance /movement therapy model will be useful for other places and cultures.
These opportunities for participation in Australia and overseas have helped me to use my experiences of injustice to work for positive sustainable changes in many systems. The leadership and mentoring of my peers encourages me to stay involved. Using my lived experience, all of it, and continually increasing my skills helps me to be more effective and to benefit all with lived experience, both now and into the future.
I have not let my life experiences define me or stop my participation. I still wear glasses and it still seems natural to need them. I’m still shy, however the training in drama and public speaking helps me to participate in public. I’m still not very confident, although I might appear to be, and need ongoing encouragement, training and mentoring.
Meaningful engagement with demonstrated outputs and outcomes, developing new skills and meeting others who encourage me has empowered me to keep involved, even when discouraged, and to continue influencing for positive changes that will benefit all Australians. I have a passion to use my ongoing journey to increase the number of opportunities for other peers to participate, engage and influence change and demonstrate leadership at local, state, national and international levels.