Sheila Openshaw loves make-up, dancing and Marilyn Monroe. She had quite the collection of Monroe pictures before deciding to auction most of them a while back, to raise money for a mental health program that runs in her hometown of Port Macquarie.
It’s just a small insight into the hundreds of tiny ways this mum, mental health advocate and 2015 NSW Carer of the Year has spent the past two decades working to improve the lives of those with mental illness.
Sheila traces her commitment to helping others back to her parents, who “worked tirelessly all their lives to raise money for those less fortunate”.
But it was witnessing her youngest son’s experience of psychosis 22 years ago that focused her attention on mental illness.
“He was 21 when he had his first psychotic episode, but with the benefit of hindsight we now realise that he was becoming unwell during his early teenager years,” Sheila explains.
“He has since told me that he was hearing voices when he was in primary school.”
Sheila’s youngest son went on to be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and his recovery journey included an eight and half year stay in Morisset Hospital on the NSW Central Coast. Now 43 years old, he lives independently in Port Macquarie and Sheila visits him three to four times a week.
The decision to work with local services to find her son his own accommodation was “the best thing I could have done”.
“It made him be responsible and he soon learnt that he needed to take charge of his own mental health. I think underneath it all he really wanted to be an independent person. He hasn’t looked back. He’s become quite a good little cook, he does all his own washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning. He does all his own banking as he is extremely good on the computer.”
Sheila also cares for her elder son, who was diagnosed with anxiety and mood disorders some time after her youngest son first became unwell. She travels to Newcastle regularly to stay with him for short periods.
“We get on very well together. He is 47 years of age and certainly in a much better place these days.”
Sheila was named 2015 NSW Carer of the Year not only due to this “outstanding commitment to her sons” but also her community work. She has run the Hastings Mental Health Support Group for 15 years and donates much energy to organisations including Endeavour Mental Health Recovery Clubhouse, Mission Australia and Australian Rotary Health.
Sheila’s stamina stems from multiple supports.
“My husband and soul mate Alan has been of greatest help and support to me as a carer. I know everyone is not so lucky.”
“Going for walks, blow drying my hair on a daily basis, doing my make-up daily – even if it is just to go up to Coles or Woolworths – all these things help me to feel good about myself.”
Sheila doesn’t wish to gloss over the hardship that can come with caring – “I’ve cried a lot, I do a lot of thinking and crying in the shower” – but says she endeavours to remind herself that “tomorrow is another day”.
“You really cherish the good days. [My youngest son] rang me up at 9pm last night and he really wanted to have a chat. I cherish those moments and they give me hope.”