What does your typical work day involve?

My work days are usually quite varied. I may be consulting with different internal stakeholders from IT, Human Resources or Marketing and Communications; developing and implementing processes to ensure the Support Centre is operating smoothly and efficiently; supporting frontline staff with clinical and operational issues and ensuring they are supported in their work; and connecting with staff through one-to-ones or team meetings.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

It is a privilege to contribute to the design of new services and then see them delivered by our skilled frontline team of counsellors and peer support workers. I also love reviewing and developing our existing services so that they better meet the needs of people with complex mental health issues. Another highlight is when I get to hear stories from our frontline staff about the positive impact they are making in people’s lives.

What does “complex mental health issues” actually mean?

Complex mental health issues are significant and persistent mental health challenges that have a complex impact on people’s lives, such as schizophrenia, panic disorder, and personality disorders. It also includes co-occuring issues like a mental health issue and Autism, as well as responses to trauma.

SANE recently launched a new pilot to support those with complex mental health problems. What does the program involve and what has the early feedback been like?

In certain regions of Australia, SANE is rolling out a new service that supports people in a more comprehensive way than we ever have before. It connects participants with a dedicated support team of mental health professionals across lived experience and mental health counselling. Together, a flexible and personalised support plan is created that can include a mix of one-to-one counselling and peer support, support coordination sessions, online Forums, peer groups and events centred around arts, socialising or psychoeducation. Participants have access to a secure online portal where they can see their support plan, view and book appointments, and access resources.

The early feedback has been positive. People like that they can choose which combination of SANE’s services they would like to access, and that they take the lead in creating their own support plan. People have also told us how important the continuity of ongoing sessions with the same professional is so that they do not need to repeat their story. They also appreciate the service’s flexibility; it is delivered by phone or online, allowing users to access it wherever they are and whatever their schedule.

The COVID pandemic has made mental health front of mind for many Australians. How has that affected demand for SANE services?

The pandemic has been a tough time for all, particularly people with existing mental health issues. Demand for SANE’s services has increased exponentially since the beginning of the pandemic. We have roughly quadrupled our number of frontline workers since the start of 2020 in order to support demand for our drop-in phone and chat services and to support the roll out of the Pilot.

We have had major inquiries, including a Productivity Commission and Royal Commission, that have highlighted major gaps in the mental healthcare system. What more needs to be done to try to bridge those gaps?

People with complex mental health issues often need access to ongoing mental health care – more sessions than a Mental Health Care Plan from a GP can provide. Waitlists to see a psychologist or psychiatrist are long, and support and treatment is expensive. Ongoing mental health care needs to be more affordable and more available, particularly for vulnerable people within the community. People with co-occurring complex mental health issues and autism or intellectual disability are a particularly vulnerable and underserviced demographic, which is why SANE’s services particularly cater to this population.

Access to support for complex mental health care is also very limited for people in regional and remote areas and for people who, often because of their mental health, find it difficult to leave their home or travel to appointments. SANE’s services are all telehealth (delivered by phone or online) and aim to bridge this gap.

Do you have some examples of positive outcomes for participants in SANE’s programs?

We have received positive feedback from participants and referrers already. For example, a participant who was discharged from hospital reported a sense of confidence because they knew they would continue to receive ongoing support from SANE when they returned home. This hospitalisation was also much shorter than was typical for them before being referred into the program. Post-discharge can be a challenging time for people, so knowing that SANE can provide this continuity of care is special. We also receive many comments around SANE’s services being “different” and how positive and genuine the connections are that are formed between the participant and counsellor or peer support worker.

There is increasing awareness about the benefits of peer workers in mental healthcare. What special insights and skills do you believe they bring to the role?

There is mounting evidence for the benefit of peer support in mental health recovery. In particular, peer work promotes recovery in three unique ways: fostering hope by sharing one’s own experiences; role-modelling self-care and ways of managing everyday life; and developing a peer-to-peer relationship based on trust, acceptance, understanding and empathy. I believe there is more to peer work than simply sharing experiences. Peer workers are skilled in knowing how to share their story with purpose and in a way that is safe for them and the recipient. Skill also lies in being able to identify which personal experience aligns with a theme the participant may benefit from connecting to in their stage of recovery, such as hope or identity.

SANE’s Pilot program was co-designed with people with complex mental health issues, and there was strong feedback that the program be peer-led. This is why each participant is assigned a Peer Navigator at the start of their program to act as a warm welcome and guide throughout the program from someone who just “gets it”.

For more information, visit the SANE Australia website.

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