Using my own lived experience to support people

Kylie SmithABOVE: Kylie Smith, Peer Worker at the Women and Children’s Program PHOTO BY GRANT J EVERETT

What is does it mean to use your own lived experience of mental health issues to support other people? Kylie Smith, a Peer Worker at Flourish Australia’s Women & Children’s Program at Blacktown explains.

By Kylie Smith

My lived experience is what led me to this role. I started an online support group for women who live with a mental health issue, and I actually found out about this little cottage through the grapevine. I arranged to meet with Belinda Jenkins, the Senior Cluster Manager who ran things, and when she mentioned something about peer workers I was like, “Okay, I didn’t even know that such a role even existed! So I could use my own experiences to support people?” I applied for a casual position, and I’ve been here ever since. This is my first role working in the mental health sector, and in October I’ve been doing it for five years. 

The services we offer vary according to need. I started off working in the residential program, which is comprised of six villas located on site at Charmian Clift. This program provides around-the-clock supported accommodation. However, I’m now working with the transition and outreach program. This basically means working with families living out in the community. At the moment we have nine families in transition, and three in outreach who I work with directly. Another couple of peer workers share the caseload with me here at Charmian Clift. No two days are the same, which is a good thing.

To be eligible for our program, a woman needs to either be homeless or at risk of homelessness. They need to have a child in their care, or seeking to have their child returned to them while they are here. They also have to be living with a mental health issue. A lot of the time there is some extensive trauma. 

How we help

When a mum first enters our program we basically sit down with them and ask what their goals are, then we figure out how to support them towards achieving those goals. We offer all kinds of practical  support, and one of the standard ways I assist families in the transition and outreach program is to link them up with dedicated services in the community so all their needs are met. 

When somebody first walks in the door there’s usually a sense of hopelessness, and it can be hard for the mums to believe that there’s a better life waiting for them than the one they arrived with. Considering where a lot of the mums have come from, it’s incredible that they can even get up of the morning and do half the things they do. They’re all so inspiring.

Housing NSW will often play a big role in helping with the transition back into the community, as the women who seek our support often need housing assistance, whether in the private sector or in public housing. If they want to return to work then we can support them with writing a resume and by linking them in with job network members. Study is another major goal for many of the outreach mums, and we make sure they’re receiving enough support to get the most out of their education. Linking up the ladies who have younger children with supported playgroups can ease the pressure of parenting and help with the bonding process.

I think we do a great job in working side by side with these families-in-need. We don’t take over their lives: we work with the families.

By role modeling what good parenting is, what good living skills are, how to maintain wellness, and how they can work towards their goals. We’ve got lots of families who have had a lack of role models in their lives, so some mums can’t even do basic things like put on a load of washing or cook a meal, so to see them build those skills is beautiful. 

There are so many vital lifeskills that we don’t learn about in school. I guess we take it for granted that parents are meant to be teaching their kids these things,  but that’s not always the case. This is why we do all we can to break that cycle right now, to teach all those essential skills that some of the mums may have missed out on.

I think in a nutshell we want to reach the point where they no longer need us, where peer workers and support workers become redundant. We always say that at the end of the day we want the women to “put us out of a job”, so to speak. We want to set them up to live independently long-term. 

To be able to see them get out and thrive and to – pardon the pun – flourish, is really good. It’s nice to see things go full circle, to see the support you’ve given get implemented. 

When the mums complete the program and leave here, I think they take with them a better sense of self and the hope that they, too, can achieve anything. 

Centrelink

Centrelink plays a key role in assisting just about everyone we support. We have a lot of women in outreach who have never dealt with Centrelink before, and then all of a sudden they’re divorced and need all kinds of  support. Just navigating Centrelink can be a huge job in itself,  sometimes. 

There are a lot of situations where women feel powerless because their partner is the main income earner. If they aren’t  sure how they’d survive financially, then it will often feel as though staying in their current situation is the only option for them and their kids. However, it’s very common that they’ll be eligible for all kinds of Centrelink assistance that they aren’t aware of. So many mums have never even heard of a lot of the different parenting payments on offer. We’re lucky to have a Centrelink engagement officer visit the cottage once a month, and she runs a little workshop where the families can come and chat with her. We can also contact her at any time via email if it’s urgent. 

For women in need, knowing exactly what Centrelink assistance they’re eligible for can greatly motivate them to get out of really bad situations faster. For instance, we just learned the other day that when you’re accessing the Centrelink website and you go into a section concerning domestic violence (which a lot of our mums have encountered), you can hit an emergency exit button that takes you straight out of the Centrelink site, kicks you back to Google and wipes the search history. So if there was the chance of an abuser looking over her shoulder and asking “What are you doing?”, this one button press can instantly cover the woman’s tracks, making it safer to seek the information she needs. I just think that this idea is incredible and wonderful. 

A little help

Our funding comes from FACS (Family and Children’s Services) and NSW Health. But we also receive other kinds of  support from many organisations and businesses. So if we have a mum who’s out in the community and she needs a new bed, we will liase with an appropriate supplier to try and get a donation sent directly to the family in need. One of our biggest providers is Providential Homes, and they’ve been fantastic in providing mattresses, beds, fridges, freezers, and all kinds of household products to our mums. And when the mums come to the end of their transition lease and they need another source of supported accommodation, we can  support them link up with Wesley Mission or Mission Australia. 

Highlights

One recent highlight was meeting Michael Clarke the former Australian Cricketer. He visited Head Office to interview Mark Orr AM (the CEO of Flourish Australia) as a part of the “Choose Empathy” campaign. Taylah, who accesses our service, and I, were both approached to share our stories, too. I think they wanted to talk to someone who was working in a role of giving back to the community and also had a lived experience of mental health issues. So the two of us went out to Sydney Olympic Park to meet him, and I’ve never met a more incredible person to talk to. I felt like Michael was really listening to what Taylah and I had to say. He asked a lot of big, difficult questions, but it was nice to know that it’s going to get a social platform, as you never know who your story will help. 

Final thoughts

It would be great if we could replicate this program elsewhere because there is such an incredible need for services like ours. I think that with more women finding their voice and getting stronger to flee harmful situations – whether it’s sexual abuse or abuse from their parents, drugs or alcohol issues or domestic violence – I think that one of the biggest barriers is feeling they have nowhere to go. 

As a peer worker, it’s kind of a humbling to be able to use my journey to give hope to the women I work with. I’ve had mums ask me, “How did you get through this? You’re in this job after going through these things.” I’ve actually got one of my transition mums at the moment asking me how to become a peer worker with Flourish Australia. She’s at the end of her transition lease, and done a lot of public speaking recently for our women and children’s program. 

Working in this role supporting women in the program has helped me continue my own recovery journey.

BELOW (FROM LEFT): Ethan, Mum Taylah, Cricket Legend Michael Clarke, and Ethan’s Dad Lachlan at Cathy Freeman ParkPHOTO BY WARREN HEGGARTY

Ethan hanging out with Michael at Catherine Freeman Park.jpg

 

Flourish Australia

Charmian Clift Cottages, WCP Blacktown

(02) 9393 9333

Open 24 hours

 

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