Vicki Schramko has seen mental illness from many sides: she has lived through the ups and downs of her own bipolar condition; cared for her husband through his debilitating depression; and now, at the age of 72, has become a mental health peer worker.
Her role with the Specialist Mental Health Services for Older People (SMHSOP) Peer Support Program is “the pinnacle of my career”, Vicki says. The opportunity to join the program came knocking after Vicki and her husband retired to the NSW Central Coast in 2010, and she searched for local mental health support services for both of them if needed.
“I just kept following through on things that the social worker suggested to me,” Vicki says.
After attending events including a six week course called ‘Over 50s Healthy and Active’, she and her husband were encouraged to apply to become peer workers. Both of their applications and interviews were successful.
Vicki has worked with nine clients thus far, and is complementing her on the job experience and peer work training by studying the Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work part time. She and her peer worker colleagues meet regularly with their supervisor and each other to share what they’ve learned, and have created manuals for both peer workers and clients to use.
“A lightbulb moment for me was when facilitating a recovery course I met a person who was totally brittle. But two weeks later, I got a call from a psychologist who said that person wanted me to work with her as a peer worker in her recovery. I was thrilled. I visited her at home and I was able to get her to relate to me about things such as what it was like when we were young, waiting by the phone for a boy to call. Over time she has gone from being a very unwell woman to having a completely happy life.”
For Vicki, there were no peer workers available when she first experienced psychosis at age 39. Rather, her GP admitted her to a local private hospital and arranged for a psychiatrist to visit the next morning.
“This lovely man said, ‘would you like to get out of bed and talk with me’? And I talked with him. He realised I needed to go to a psychiatric hospital and I was nursed there around the clock for three weeks. It took me two years to fully recover.”
Vicki credits three things with helping her stay well in the decades that followed: the sense of purpose and confidence she drew from her career in the charity sector; respectful, empathic care from “wonderful” clinicians; and the support of her husband, who is “very understanding and can tell if I need to go to the doctor.”
In turn, Vicki has supported her husband to stay well and manage his depression. Together, they have endured some of the hardships that come with persistent mental illness, including financial strain. At one point, they were spending $400 a month on pharmaceutical medication.
“We’ve always had private health cover. However when you suffer these illnesses you also suffer great financial stress. We lost our business, home, car – the lot – as a result of Peter’s illness which prevented him from to managing the business.”
Resilience in the face of adversity has been an important factor in embracing the changes in their circumstances, such as needing to leave their home and social networks.
Vicki helped her family get back on track by going to university and getting formal qualifications in Community Service Management that helped her obtain senior roles with The Red Cross and later a senior role with The Smith Family. Today, she continues her passion for community service via her peer work with the Central Coast Specialist Mental Health Services for Older People (SMHSOP).
“As peer workers, we feel like stones thrown into the pond, causing a ripple effect through people’s lives. Because if you help one person it makes their life better, but it also makes their family’s life better, and their friends’ lives better.”
Read more about the specialist mental health services on the Central Coast in Living Well in Later Life: A Case for Change.
Visit the Peer Work Hub website for more information on peer work including personal stories and information for employers.