The biggest challenge facing those with mental health issues is the stigma surrounding the subject.
That’s what mental health worker Adrian Maxwell believes.
“As soon as they get labelled, it makes it harder for them to engage with the community.”
Working for Poutiri Trust, he sees clients with alcohol, drug, and mental health problems every day.
“We help people with whatever their goals are, from finding housing to things as simple as how to cook or exercise well.”
He’s one of a handful of mental health workers who put on a barbecue on Tuesday afternoon for their clients and service users, as a celebration for Mental Health Awareness Week.
Among those service users is Frieda Allen, a self-described mental health worker ‘for herself’. She came to Te Puke-based charity Vincent House Trust three years ago, when she was suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, and suicide attempts.
“I got involved with the wrong people. All they knew was drink and drugs, and I ended up overdosing on drugs and alcohol.”
Her mother and son sent her to Vincent House. Since then, she’s been going to AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and learning how to look after herself.
“A big part of my recovery was karakia and church,” she says. “I had nothing when I came to Vincent House, except the clothes on my back. Now I have a two-bedroom unit, and a job.”
She practises harakeke putiputi – flax-weaving – the products of which she dyes and sells. Her literacy has improved, and she hopes to work with people who have been struggling with addiction or mental illness themselves.
She’s attempted to get her National Certificate in Mental Health twice now, and intends to try for it again.
“Third time lucky,” she says, with confidence.
Her advice to people who are in the situation she was in is to ‘look after yourself’.
“Eat, sleep, exercise, and get in touch with an organisation like Vincent House, or your doctor. It’s important to find balance in your life – that’s the main thing.”
Fellow Vincent House client Smith, who only wants his last name printed, has also turned his life around thanks to the trust. For four years he worked over in the Australian mines in the electrical engineering field – 12 hour shifts for 27 days in a row, with seven days off.
The stress and isolation of the job caused him to develop an addiction to strong sleeping pills, which in turn led him to go sleep-walking through Perth for three days. He ended up in a psychiatric ward, where he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and dysthymia.
“That’s when I came back to New Zealand,” says Smith. “I stayed in a unit in Hastings for a while, but ran away and felt suicidal. After that I was in the psychiatric ward at Tauranga Hospital.”
During his time at Tauranga Hospital his relationship deteriorated with his psychiatrist, whom he tried to stab one day with a scalpel. Smith came off badly, and still has long, dark red scars up his arms as a reminder.
He was also at a residential care facility for a while, but says the staff were ‘shocking’.
“They fed us meat with maggots in it.”
Around a year ago he came to Vincent House, and from then on has been steadily improving. He exercises with Adrian from Poutiri Trust, while Janie de Malmanche is his occupational therapist. He can also stay at the psychiatric ward at Tauranga Hospital for up to 24 hours at any time if he feels he needs it, and without a referral.
He says if he’s a table, then these support workers and services are each another leg. It means if one fails for whatever reason, there are still others that can keep him up.
He admits recovery is a long process, and he’s not good at relationships.
“If someone was to walk past me and not say ‘hi’, I would think they hated me,” he says. “I compare my situation to that of a burns victim, but it’s my emotional state that’s damaged.”
Thus, just as a burns victim might feel acutely pain that others brush off, Smith sometimes feels sadness or anger more strongly in response to little things.
But he’s always working on it. Recently he got his National Certificate in Mental Health, and hopes one day to work for Vincent House Trust, or a place like it.
Janie says they support around 40 people at the moment.
“Vincent House provides individualised support for people with mental illness and addiction. That support can be from anything from an hour a month to two hours a day, depending on a person’s need. We help them identify their goals, dreams, and aspirations, and work with them make a plan to get there.”
She says the focus is on getting clients to become independent and make their own healthy decisions.
“They determine where their waka goes.”
Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 runs from October 9-15. For more information visit www.mentalhealth.org.nz