Get involved, and don’t let mental health issues dictate your life to you

Mozzie and Scott shaking hands.jpgBy Scott Gourlay

Scott Gourlay (above, right) accesses Flourish Australia’s services at Taree. With quite an impressive and varied experience behind him,  recently became the Community Advisory Council representative for that region. This places him in an excellent position to bring about change. The first time Scott flew to Head Office to take part in the CAC’s  two-day biannual forum, the positions of Chair and Deputy Chair  for the next two years were elected. To Scott’s surprise, he became  Deputy Chair, with “Mozzy” Wilkinson (above, left) becoming Chair.

SCOTT: The manager of the Taree office, Chris Cassar, asked me to get involved in the CAC. Chris knows I have the confidence to share my ideas and opinions and that I’ll speak up if I’m not happy about something. I’ve also had lots of discussions with Chris regarding recovery, living with mental health issues, and how we can help people to take control of their own lives rather than being controlled by illness.

I previously worked on a committee that organised a public mental health forum at Taree, and I’ve also been a part of the Hunter Partners in Recovery (PIR) Lived Experience Advisory Group in Newcastle. The PIR group also included carers, which added a new dimension to our discussions. I’ve noticed people with mental health issues tend to focus on independence, personal empowerment and dignity of risk, while carers are more focused on safety and being kept informed. Sometimes we needed to search really hard for a point of compromise! I also tried to start a local peer organisation a while back, but sadly that didn’t work out. 

Dignity of Risk

Dignity of risk means being able to make your own decisions. This is an important topic, as living with a mental illness can automatically mean that we are viewed as incapable of making choices for ourselves. Early in my journey I was involved with a consumer group that met at a local club, but the powers-that-be tried to shut it down purely because they didn’t think that people with a mental illness should be around alcohol. Thankfully, this kind of backwards attitude is changing.

During my time with the CAC, I want to have a positive impact on how Flourish supports my peers by asking for new services. Taree doesn’t have a day-to-day living centre, or day programs, or groups, or service user meetings. We are very isolated and have no dedicated safe places to socialise and build mutually supportive relationships. I’m hoping to get something similar to The Centre in Newcastle set up in Taree. I know Chris Cassar is looking into getting some day programs going, and I also hope to bring home some other good ideas.

Stretch my boundaries

Being a CAC rep means long-distance travel and that always plays into my anxieties. Managing my nerves in large crowds is one of my biggest challenges. That said, the CAC has given me an opportunity to stretch my boundaries, practise my coping strategies, and overcome my fears.  

Information Technology has always been my big work interest and skill. In the past, I worked my way up from a job at the Commonwealth Bank when I left school in year 11, to recruitment consultant and managerial positions. I even had a stint in the army.

Being diagnosed with a mental health issue affected my life in a major way. With my very first hospitalisation I lost my friends, my job as a manager and my house. As the cycle of unemployment, hospitalisation, homelessness and losing friends continued, I became more isolated and withdrawn. I stopped trying to form friendships, as I was certain they’d just fail again.

 In a way, my recovery started from my first admission, because that was when I began to learn all I could about mental health issues and how to manage my symptoms. However, I don’t think my recovery really began until about 12 years ago when I became more involved with consumer organisations and started trying to live a fuller life.

“I’ve noticed people with mental health issues tend to focus on independence, personal empowerment and dignity of risk, while carers are more focused on safety and being kept informed. Sometimes we needed to search really hard for a point of compromise!

My definition of recovery is living a full life despite symptoms. I believe I’ll always have some level of symptoms present, be they voices, paranoia, or some persistent thoughts that may not be based on reality. Living and operating to the best of my ability is my idea of recovery.

I’m in private rental with a flatmate at Taree. My flatmate rarely leaves his room, so it’s not exactly a supportive arrangement. We can go a whole week and barely share a word. As I find it easy and comfortable to isolate myself, to avoid the things that make me uncomfortable – such as people – I’m glad that the one-on-one support I receive from Flourish minimises how much I am alone. 

Social Network

When I first moved to Taree I met some locals through my friend, but they’ve all moved away to work in the mines or in The City. I have a very poor social network at the moment, and the lack of public transport leaves me geographically isolated. I’m sure there are a lot of locals who feel the same way, which is why I think we need a day-to-day living centre in Taree. I’d definitely like more opportunities for social interaction and groups, though they don’t necessarily have to revolve around mental illness. Getting away from the crowds and noise of Sydney has been great.

Don’t blame yourself for your illness: it’s not a moral, intellectual or personal failing. Ask your treating team questions, and don’t just let them dictate your life to you. If you need to challenge them on something, do it! It’s your life at stake, not theirs. Find supportive people who will recognise your strengths and encourage you to be more than you ever believed you could be. I think it’s important to try lots of things, keep those that help, and ditch whatever doesn’t.

I have mixed views on medication. If they work, great, keep taking them. If not, talk to your treating team about trying something else. Morally, I think people should always have a choice to make informed decisions. That said, I think some people need to take medication, at least until they are capable of making rational decisions for themselves. Taking medication needs to be YOUR decision.

What works for one person might not work for another. For example, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be effective for a lot of people, in my case constantly challenging my negative thinking and voices just becomes exhausting. As far as what works for me, mindfulness and meditation are both essential, and I’ve had a lot of success working with a psychologist. I also find support groups, social activities and DBT (Dialectical behaviour therapy) really helpful. How effective these things are tends to vary from day to day, though.

Scott spoke with Grant J Everett.

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