Emily Fahey has been lumped with three unwelcome companions since she was 11 years old. She just didn’t know it.
“I thought it was normal to feel constantly worried and stressed. I didn’t completely understand something was wrong,” Emily, now 21, said.
“Then I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.”
Therapy and a supportive family helped, but her companions decided to flex their muscles in 2016 when she took on a full-time university degree, a full-time job and moved out of home.
“I was having a really hard time. It got to be too much. I had terrible anxiety and was really depressed and my symptoms kept getting worse.
She dropped out of university, quit her job and moved home.
The mental health unit at Tweed Hospital referred her to mental health support organisation Wellways Australia in Ballina and the Youth Community Living Support Service.
For the first time, Emily found support among young people who were also struggling with mental illness.
“It was incredible to know I wasn’t the only one. There was a real feeling of kinship,” she said.
Emily learnt coping strategies, how to recognise her triggers, self care tips and a safe place to open up, and her peer worker also helped her navigate practical imperatives like attending appointments.
“It’s hard to believe I’ve gone from not being able to leave the house alone to going back to uni and really enjoying it,” said Emily, who has just finished a semester of a Bachelor of Arts majoring in writing and media.
Community-based mental health services like Wellways and YCLSS are set to benefit from a $20 million funding injection, recurring over the next four years, in Tuesday’s state budget.
The additional $20 million will raise to $95 million the total investment in NSW mental health reform in 2017-2018.
Mental health patients become health workers
The funding boost includes $6.4 million to help up to 115 long-stay mental health patients transition into the community, including $1.6 million for the Pathways in Community Living Initiative run by peer workers who have experienced their own mental illnesses
When a 23-year-old Phil Escott was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1976 the concept of peer workers would have been considered a farce.
He was halfway through his law degree at Sydney University when the hallucinations, the voices and delusions became overwhelming.
People spoke about mental illness with hushed tones and families were ashamed of loved ones with psychosis, said Mr Escott, now a peer worker at the Professor Marie Bashir Centre in Camperdown.
“Mum thought it was drug-induced and my Dad thought I was acting,” Mr Escott, 63, said.
His diagnosis is now a prerequisite.
“Part of my job is to use my own experience and knowledge to support people who might be distressed by their diagnosis and to teach them that it is not the end of the world. They can recover,” he said.
“We don’t consider a person as a set of symptoms. We talk about their strength and resilience and that’s empowering.
Peer workers are the moral support patients need as they prepare to leave hospital, as well as facilitating practical components like feeding pets or connecting patients with community services like housing, job opportunities and outpatient treatment.
“It can be very difficult to access services if you aren’t well,” he said.
The 2017-2018 budget injection also covers $3.6 million to fund new new peer worker, Aboriginal Clinical leaders and trainee positions.
It was a rapidly growing workforce, Mr Escott said, “and I think as things improve it can only get better”.
The funding also includes:
- $2.4 million for older people community mental health services and Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network
- $2.2 million for child and adolescent mental health teams
- $4.8 million for psychosocial support services
NSW mental health minister Tanya Davies said the measures deliver on the government’s commitment to improving the lives of people in NSW who depend on critical community-based services.
“It gives a helping hand to those who need it by expanding community mental health teams, community managed living supports and specialist services for children, adolescents, adults and older people.”
This piece was first seen on the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ 17 June 2017.