Community provides the recipe for good mental health

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Rob’s story

I grew up with a father who had a mental illness that was never diagnosed. As a child I was very religious and always had dark thoughts. I started feeling very mentally unwell in 1977, around the time that Elvis Presley died. His music had a great effect on me and I was devastated by his death. I was smoking a lot of marijuana at the time and was a huge fan of Bob Dylan.

I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1982 and was admitted to Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital while studying a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at La Trobe University. My illness kept me from finishing my degree for five years. After that I started doing a social work degree at Melbourne University, but had to drop out of the course.

I had a number of jobs, including youth work and volunteering with Meals on Wheels, and eventually secured a position in the Department of Education as an administrative officer.
I currently work there one day a week and am well-supported by my colleagues.

“I started attending programs at Farnham Street Neighbourhood Learning Centre a number of years ago. It was a very welcoming, flexible environment, with a great understanding of mental health issues.”

I started attending programs at Farnham Street Neighbourhood Learning Centre a number of years ago. It was a very welcoming, flexible environment, with a great understanding of mental health issues. I now come to the Healthy Cooking class, the Gardening Program, the Writer’s  Group and the Boomerang Network. I now feel so much a part of the place and am treated with dignity and respect. It has saved my life!

My illness has had a profound effect on me and I have found it difficult to maintain employment and relationships, but feel lucky to have a caring family, a supportive workplace and the wonderful staff and participants of Farnham Street.

Farnham Street Neighbourhood Learning Centre

Being near the former Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital, Farnham Street was well-placed to help people deal with the effects of the deinstitutionalisation process.

Farnham Street Neighbourhood Learning Centre in Flemington has been developing  relationships with mental health agencies and participants for more than 22 years. Being near the former Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital, Farnham Street was well-placed to help people deal with the effects of the deinstitutionalisation process. This was initially a challenging situation but, with persistence, development of good strategies, and adherence to social justice values, it has helped people living with mental health issues in the local area improve their outcomes enormously.

The process began in the early 90s, with many mental health participants living in Flemington and surrounding areas who started accessing programs at Farnham Street. Amidst a wider lack of community understanding of mental illness, various situations arose, which both staff and participants were unsure of how to deal with.

As the Farnham Street manager, I approached Macaulay Community Support Association (MCSA), a small psychiatric disability support service in Flemington, to ask for support. The MCSA manager provided staff training for us and explained the major psychiatric illnesses,
associated behaviours and the side effects of medication. Farnham Street and MCSA developed a strong partnership and applied for numerous joint programs.

The first Disability Cooking class started in 1993, funded through Adult, Community and Further Education (ACFE). As demand grew, another class was organised, this time for men with a psychiatric disability. There are now four cooking classes, which are all full. Many participants now attend numerous activities at Farnham Street, including computer training, gardening, sewing and craft, art, community choir, the writing group and the Boomerang Network, a social support group for people with mental health issues.

Eventually MCSA became part of Doutta Galla Community Health Services, which introduced a Mental Health and Complex Needs Unit. This area was vitally important, as previously many people showed signs of mental illness, but didn’t have a particular psychiatric diagnosis, so  weren’t eligible for services. This led to some people experiencing extreme disadvantage, including homelessness, and disengagement from the wider community.

Around 2010 the collaborative recovery model was introduced into the psychiatric disability sector, bringing significant changes. It was a participant-focused model aiming to refer participants into programs run by mainstream community organisations, rather than psych-specific agencies running their own programs. The Mental Health and Complex Needs Unit closed and a large number of participants were left with no place to call their own. This caused enormous distress among the participants, as this organisation had provided so much support over a long period of time.

Around 2012–13 Doutta Galla Community Health Services merged with Yarra Health and  Western Region Health to form Cohealth. This merger aimed to form a bigger organisation
that would be better placed to win tenders in line with the NDIS rollout.

Farnham Street currently has relationships with Cohealth, Waratah Mental Health Services, Norfolk Terrace Continuing Care Unit and Arion Park, a short-term mental health accommodation facility. We also support the Boomerang Network and the Waratah Mental  Health Carer’s Network.

I would like to acknowledge the R. E. Ross Trust funding for the Marvellous Mental Health Project as well as ACFE and Higher Education and Skills Group for their continuing support.

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