ABOVE (FROM LEFT): Desley Casey, Simon Champ and Helen Blum, all pioneers of the early recovery movement. PHOTO COURTESY OF JANET MEAGHER AM
By Grant J Everett
Considering that Flourish Australia employs well over two hundred Peer Workers, it may surprise you that this role has only existed for a little over a quarter of a century. The very first paid Peer Worker in the country was Helen Blum in 1992, though back then this role was called something else: Consumer Worker.
Like all the Peer Workers who followed in her footsteps, Helen had a lived experience of a mental health issue that she would utilise to assist others who were going through similar circumstances. Peer Workers provide non-judgemental, empathetic, practical support, and are mentors and role models who can support people with a lived experience navigate the mental health system. Peer Workers often know firsthand what it’s like to have treatment forced upon them, to be kept in seclusion, the distressing side effects some medication can have, and the stigma and discrimination people with mental health issues often encounter in the community. Peer workers can draw upon their own lived experience to provide a sense of hope to a person on their recovery journey.
Janet Meagher AM was a founding member of several mental health Consumer organisations and has worked tirelessly for the rights of people living with mental health issues. She has been appointed to many Ministerial and National Advisory bodies in Health, Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Disability. Janet knew Helen for decades.
As well as being the first Peer Worker, Helen was also the longest employed Peer Worker.
“Ms Jan Whelan was the General Manager of Rozelle Hospital in 1992 and she was often surrounded by a coterie of people with a lived experience. Jan was getting more and more disgusted with how dehumanising and ineffective institutional care was, so she took a step that was highly unusual back then: she gathered a group of people with mental health issues and asked them how they could help to start a cultural change for everyone with a lived experience. Note that the recovery movement hadn’t been invented yet and people with a lived experience didn’t have the human rights they do now, so it was revolutionary to consult with consumers of mental health services like this.
A NEW DIRECTION
“As the system could be frightening and even outright detrimental in the long term, Jan wanted people with a lived experience to start supporting each other. This initial group developed a framework for employing Peer Workers (Consumer Consultants at the time) called The Consumer Consultant Resource Group. We knew that these new workers needed to be the sort who would be willing to make a difference by taking part in meetings and face-to-face discussions with the people in charge. My role was to actively investigate wards and other places where we could slot in and have an impact.
“Our first official meeting was in October 1992, and Helen was employed as the very first Consumer Coordinator in December. CAG (Consumer Advisory Group) also formed around this time. Helen’s office was located in Cottage 18 at Rozelle Hospital, and it served as a meeting place for the early consumer movement. Cottage 18 was often filled with lively debates, but Helen was usually out and about working with people in need.
“Helen worked 13 hours per week on the grounds of Rozelle, and in order to maximise our impact Helen employed another half a dozen Consumer Workers in February 1993. Helen and her team provided advocacy and support, ran groups, attended meetings, and spread the news about what the recovery movement had to offer. Their message was such a success that soon Victoria started employing Peer Workers, gradually followed by all the other states and territories. A lot of well-known names within the recovery movement got their start around this time: Merinda Epstein, Peter Schaecken, Leonie Manns, Simon Champ, and many more.
“Helen was very innovative. For instance, her office garage was a clothing store for people who had been hospitalised with just the clothes on their back, but she only offered the best quality items. She would source donations from Op Shops and charitable people. People were welcome to take whatever they needed. Helen also understood the importance of pets, and offered pet-minding services for people who had been admitted. And anyone who visited Cottage 18 was introduced to the donations tin! When NSW CAG itself became homeless, Helen generously provided them with 2 rooms of her Cottage. This served as CAG’s home until 2006.
MY FRIEND HELEN
“Helen was very refined and educated and smart, and was a beautiful, beautiful person. We actually wrote a paper on ethics together. She was strong as an ox for people’s rights. She was often underestimated, but Helen was truly a revolutionary. Considering how hard her life was, she was like the Little Engine That Could: I think I can, I think I can…
“Helen was a woman of great compassion who spent her life helping the most vulnerable and marginalised of people. When she passed away on the 30th of July 2012, her colleagues and friends – fellow veterans of the Australian mental health consumer movement – presented twenty yellow roses to her family to acknowledge how it had been 20 years since she was appointed as Australia’s first Peer Worker, and how she’d helped pour the foundation of modern mental health services. Although most people have never heard of her, Helen will be remembered as the ultimate advocate…and for her unbeaten Scrabble skills.
“Helen was courageous, generous, a critical thinker, and full of perseverance and humour. Helen’s son Gunter spoke of the many qualities he’d learned from her, and his hope that he could pass these on to his own son with the same style and grace.”
Margot McKay works for Flourish Australia’s Katoomba service, and is Helen Blum’s niece. While she was aware of Helen’s work, Margot was quite surprised to find out how much of a forerunner her Aunt really was.
“I must have been in my 20s when Helen was first employed as a Consumer Worker. She was allocated a cottage on the grounds as her office and employed 2 days a week. She would spend a lot of that time making trips to the wards to talk to people and encourage them. She was kind of like an Official Visitor in that she’d discuss people’s experiences, what their needs were, and how the system could better support these needs.
“Back in 1992 Helen’s work was groundbreaking, as back then people with a diagnosis like Helen’s simply didn’t get jobs. She had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and was really unwell from time to time, but Helen’s employer at Rozelle was always very understanding when she couldn’t work. I remember she would have quite long periods off, but her job remained there waiting for her, and she would always return to it as soon as possible.
“We were all so proud of what we were a part of that we stopped seeing ourselves purely as ex-patients and instead saw ourselves as people of worth and value who had something real to contribute to society,” Janet Meagher AM
“During my childhood and teenage years she was often in and out of Rozelle Hospital as a patient, sometimes voluntary, sometimes scheduled. She could usually tell when she needed to admit herself for a short stay. It must have been interesting to go from being an in-patient to a Peer Worker at the same place.
“From time to time Helen had public housing around Balmain and Leichhardt, and sometimes when I was a kid she would live at our place for short periods when she was quite unwell. Her son stayed with us, too. Occasionally, when Helen was in hospital, my cousin would remain with us. Helen would visit her parents at Kiama numerous times over the years, and maintained contact with them throughout her life. She lived in the same area her parents had once lived for a number of years, and saw this place as her home. We would still see her from time to time.
“Helen had quite a few colleagues who meant a lot to her, and over time a larger and larger network grew from these small beginnings. Later on, Helen got involved with the Consumer Advisory Group. We’d have long conversations about her work over a game of Scrabble.
“Helen’s work was highly political, as she wanted to empower people within the mental health system to have an impact of the way things are run. This was the beginnings of the recovery era, where people with a lived experience not only started to have a voice but also began to be heard, and it’s easy to forget how controversial the consumer recovery movement used to be.
“Gunter moved to Melbourne and had a child with his partner, and Helen was over the moon to be a grandma. They kept up contact, but I don’t think they actually saw each other that often.
“Much of my career has been in the field of child protection, and a lot of the people I encountered had mental health issues and drug and alcohol problems, so it’s a world I’ve had a lot of contact with. I’ve also studied psychology at Uni. And with all the contact I’d had with my Aunt, when the Flourish Australia job came up, it felt familiar. When I started working here I thought I should Google my Aunt, and that’s when I found her obituary. I was aware she was a forerunner in the field, but I didn’t know she was the very first Peer Worker!
THE VALUE OF FAMILY SUPPORT
“My Aunt’s struggles didn’t carry a stigma within my family. I spent a reasonable amount of time around her, and her health was always something we could openly discuss. Indeed, I had spoken with Helen a lot about her health and her experiences and the mental health system.“
“What are Consumer Workers and what do we do?”
NSW Consumer Advisory Group newsletter, “Vale Helen Blum”, page 14, July to December 2012 issue