Sandra Morgan is a consumer advocate based at Queanbeyan, NSW who has a lived experience of mental illness.
She applied for the position about eight years ago because she thought it would be a better way to pay her way through university than working on a check-out. Much to Sandra’s surprise and delight, she discovered she had a real passion for the work.
One of the major projects Sandra has worked on, as part of a team, was the transitioning of 20 people who were long-stay mental health patients from the David Morgan Centre, Kenmore in Goulburn into community-based accommodation.
For several years Sandra had been visiting the psychogeriatric unit at Kenmore where patients would constantly say, “I want to go home. When can I go home?”
“Even though the care was excellent and the staff very attentive, a hospital is not a home,” Sandra explains.
Although these patients were in a position to be transitioned back into the community, in most cases their original homes no longer existed. Some people had been hospitalised for up to almost 50 years. Patients, family and carers were consulted and possible facilities for each individual patient were investigated. Sandra and her colleagues found them new homes close to family or friends or in other preferred locations.
Follow-up visits were and still are conducted by staff from Kenmore, often even on their own personal time.
“The project took approximately three years to complete and patients are able to go back to the unit for treatment if and when the need arises,” Sandra explains.
Nowadays, Sandra is serving as a Consumer Advisor to the Ministry of Health on a state-wide project exploring the possibility of transitioning approximately 380 long-term patients into the community.
“The project will be long-running and involve widespread consultation and careful consideration of all factors involved for affected people, so as to ensure its success,” Sandra says.
She enjoys being a consumer advocate because she “can make small differences in people’s lives on a personal level and effect larger differences on a systemic level”.
“I think the best thing consumer advocates can do for individuals recovering from mental health issues is to listen to them. People want someone to tell their troubles to, they do not want to be talked at. I feel that it is very important for people to be heard. I do not feel that people suffering with a mental illness should identify themselves by their mental illness. If the wider community could see the person suffering mental illness as a whole person, rather than just as their illness, perhaps those who are ill would not encounter so much stigma in their everyday lives.”
Sandra’s advice for those interested in being a consumer advocate is to know they are in a position of trust and responsibility, and not to take the privilege lightly.
“Advocates potentially have the ability to exert power and influence over other people’s lives. They must exercise discretion, have compassion and exhibit sensible, well-considered thinking at all times,” Sandra says.
Although she is pleased with her professional achievements – including winning the Community Champion Award at the 2015 Mental Health Matters Awards – Sandra believes they merely scratch the surface of what needs to be done for people suffering from mental illness.
“However, I can be proud that I do my job to the best of my ability and with integrity. If I am able to put a smile on a depressed person’s face I feel like I have made a difference and, in the rare event that I can make them laugh, it is an indescribable bonus.”