Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


Mental Health

7:19 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I proceed to talk to you about the issue I have on adjournment tonight I want to put forward my best wishes to the retiring senators who spoke tonight, Senators Troeth, Barnett and Trood.

Senator Troeth led, with three other senators, a moment in this parliament. The issue of RU486 showed we can come together as a parliament across political barriers to debate the issues that divide parties. I was so very happy to be able to be involved in that debate, and also very happy to see the leadership that was given by Senator Troeth and, of course, Senators Moore, Nash and Stott-Despoja. It was an extraordinary experience, and I thank you, Senator Troeth.

And I have to say to Senator Barnett–with whom I do not normally have too many issues that we agree on–that if he had given that speech when I was here in the beginning I think I would have had a different perspective on him. And if he had told me that the Pollie Pedal took in chocolate factories, wineries and cheese factories I think I would have been there, even though my cycling days are long gone. I also look forward to receiving the pedometer that he said he will give to each of us, because certainly I do need to pick up my fitness rate.

Senator Trood has obviously been spoken of in glowing terms. Whilst I have not personally had much to do with Senator Trood in committee meetings we have had the occasional chat in the hallway, and I have always found him to be extraordinarily generous with his time and informative in the issues which he has been interested in. I thank all three senators for the time they have given to the Senate and I wish them well in their future endeavours. Tonight I would like to speak on mental health.

As we strive to build a more inclusive community and a more inclusive workforce here in Australia, the reality is that people with mental illness still face a number of setbacks and challenges. Those who have experienced mental illness can often find it difficult to fully participate in our society, in study or in the workplace whilst also trying to maintain their mental health. With at least one in every five Australians each year experiencing mental illness, there is no doubt that all of us here in this chamber have at some time supported a friend or a family member or perhaps endured our own personal challenge with mental illness. Too often we focus on what is not being done to promote awareness of mental illness or to support those who have suffered from or are caring for those with mental illness.

That said, tonight I want to take this opportunity to share a few success stories in the area of mental health. I have had the privilege of attending a number of events associated with mental health services in Tasmania. At these events I have met with a range of inspirational people who are working hard to support those with mental illness in our community. I also have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people who have suffered from mental illness and who are now strong advocates for those with mental illness in our community. Many of these individuals have been willing to share their personal experiences—both the setbacks and the successes—as they continue to manage their mental health.

One such event I attended was the launch of the National Disability Coordination Officer Program booklet. The Tasmanian NDCO, in conjunction with the University of Tasmania, Tasmanian Polytechnic, Mental Health Council of Tasmania, Advocacy Tasmania, Wise Employment, CRS Australia and Choose Employment, developed a resource for graduates from university or a VET course with mental illness who are making the transition to employment. The resource is appropriately titled Mountain Climbing: a resource for tertiary graduates with lived experience of mental illness making the transition to employment and is the perfect way to describe the challenges faced by people who are trying to navigate their way through study and the workforce whilst maintaining their health. The resource chronicles personal triumphs and setbacks that a diverse range of jobseekers with mental illness have experienced in the pursuit of their careers. They also mythbust issues associated with mental illness.

I want to share just one of the many stories in the booklet. This is Ryan's story:

Ryan turned 51 in August. When he was a little kid something bad happened to him that he doesn't like talking about. The doctors called it trauma and now they say he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ryan's had mental health issues all his life. He can count on one hand the years when his health has been plain sailing. But Ryan never gave in to his condition.

Over the years he built a strong support network made up of friends, family and counsellors. He spent time in hospitals in Tasmania and interstate.

He worked more jobs than he can count but never got a qualification. Finally this year, he completed a Certificate IV in Counselling and landed a job at a Job Network straightaway.

Even though he was really excited to be offered a role so quickly, Ryan found his anxiety build as the start date for the job drew nearer.

When his first day arrived, Ryan was a wreck. His hands were shaking and his thoughts were racing. He knew he couldn't go to work in that state so he contacted his own Disability Employment Services provider and asked for help. His case manager helped him calm down and asked if he'd disclosed his mental health issues when he applied for the job. Ryan said he had disclosed so his case manager simply called the workplace and told them what had happened. Ryan went to see his psychiatrist who changed his medication. Two weeks later he started at the job.

In reading through this resource, you appreciate the mountain climbing metaphor that both inspires hope and fosters a sense of achievement. For people managing their mental health, the experience really is like navigating a mountain range rather than just climbing to the top of one summit.

As Keith Mahar describes in the foreword of the booklet—Keith is a native, or rather a Canadian, but one who now lives in Tasmania; he made a very wise choice—climbing a mountain requires us to prepare to tackle the challenge. This preparation involves insight, skills, knowledge, the right equipment and the support of a good team. With the right resources and the right networks, we know that we can support and equip those jobseekers to succeed in their journey.

I have no doubt this resource will give graduates and jobseekers with a mental illness the confidence to navigate pathways through study and into the workforce and beyond. I know this resource is already making a difference to the lives of people who refuse to let their mental illness stop them from building a career, giving them the tools necessary to navigate their own journey both in Tasmania and around Australia. Whilst we have some way to go in terms of building a better system and improving the way we care for and support people with mental illness, it is also important to celebrate resources such as the Mountain climbing booklet as part of our progress so far. The Mountain climbing booklet is also a resource that I hope will help assist prospective employers to understand more about mental illness and how they may best be able to support employees with a mental illness.

That said, I am confident that there is a growing willingness amongst employers who foster a more inclusive workplace. At the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service Awards function in Tasmania earlier this year, I had the benefit of hearing a number of Tasmanian employers share their stories about taking on employees with mental illness. I was heartened that so many employers were committed to supporting people with a mental illness in their transition back to the workforce. Those employers truly understand the importance of an inclusive workplace and were more than willing to negotiate flexible conditions for employees who were struggling to balance their work and their mental health. For those employees that I met at the CRS function, I truly appreciate that for them having a job was not about getting paid; it was about feeling connected to the workplace and to the community. They were able to feel comfortable disclosing their mental illness at the outset, which means that managing their mental health and their work responsibility was far less stressful. What is more, their employers are in a better position to provide them with the support they need to continue to carry out their jobs and stay healthy.

The more we do in the community to build awareness of mental illness and break down the stigma, the more success stories I hope to hear.