My words,
on text for ages to come

my deeds,
both silent and lovingly done

given by people most kind

well run and always on time

for the Recovery Day

while I was working away

from all the people I met

to see that all needs are set

all that I am left to say is that I am…

for A Place to Belong

Andrew Janson Welles

Andrew, a College student visiting from the USA, spent some of his summer vacation time with A Place to Belong. This poem reflects something of his experience.

Theresa Davis

“It’s what I want to do.”
Theresa on volunteering

Rewarding reflection from a part – time university social work student who began work as a volunteer when she had finished a university placement at A Place to Belong.

Part-time university Social Work student Theresa Davis began her work as a volunteer when she had finished a university placement at A Place to Belong.

“I found at the end of the placement I wanted to keep going. I found the work that was happening there with people with complex health issues so special and rare.”

Later she spent half a day each week with one of the people whom the agency assists.

“Just spending time with her in her daily life is so important – having company. We are always walking around the area together – it’s good to be with her and know that some things are now possible for her as she knows someone is on her side. She doesn’t need my ‘help’ but sometimes she asks for it.”

As a volunteer, Theresa took part in team discussions and meetings along with staff, community allies and program participants.

“The team supports her and any decision-making that is made regarding her life, she is part of. The whole process is very inclusive and really supports her self-esteem. She says what she thinks and no decision is taken away from her.”

Theresa understood first-hand what an impact illness can have on one’s life having recovered from serious illness herself.

“It’s different for people with mental health issues and the way in which they are supported makes a difference to their capacity to stay well. They don’t want to end up back in hospital and with more personal support, they don’t get sick as often. It’s a fact of life and it’s good to help make that possible.”

Theresa had wanted to volunteer for a long time and started out volunteering at the New Farm Community garden, joining in with a group of local people.

“It’s a good niche for lots of people to volunteer.”

Her volunteering experiences were very positive.

“My circle of friends has exploded – that’s the most amazing thing. It’s what I want to do and for me it is part of life’s balance. I absolutely recommend volunteering to anyone and particularly if they are looking for a way to connect to their community. It’s a really good way. People will be very surprised at just how well it works. And people shouldn’t be concerned about mental health volunteering. People think odd, strange and challenging things will happen but they never do. It’s no stranger than spending a morning with a second cousin – it’s quite normal actually.”

Stephen Heap

Early in 2004 I was living a reclusive life in my unit, struggling daily and painfully with my mental health. The only time that I would leave the unit was for a fortnightly shop accompanied by my brother, and the occasional visit to see my case-manager. To venture out into the front yard to collect the mail caused me pain and stress and required a great summoning of strength and nerve. Using public transport was a huge challenge and travelling invariably caused me major panic attacks (I would need to get off the bus way before it was anywhere near reaching my destination.)

I first met Neil Barringham, organiser of the Go the Journey Together, Brisbane to Cairns Bike Ride 2005, when I was considering a bike ride to Sydney to support Brook RED. The Brook RED Centre is a local mental health facility where I am involved. My case manager had linked me in with Neil when he realised how serious I was about going on a long bike ride. After meeting with Neil, I started training. I was commuting up to 30km a day beforehand but now increased that distance. Neil linked me up with Bill Webb, a Community Resource Officer with Disability Services Queensland, who was also interested in the Brisbane to Cairns bike ride. We started training at the Murarrie Bike circuit; Bill was so inspired that he decided to also do the ride rather than simply be one of the support team.

The Go the Journey Together, Brisbane to Cairns Bike ride gave me the incentive to get out and train almost every day of the week. Whereas previously I was commuting 30 kilometres a day, I now found myself training up to 50 kilometres a day. Towards the latter part of preparation I had covered 150 kilometres in one day. I was diagnosed with stomach cancer and operated on 5 months before the ride. This set my training back – I was unable to stand for a week and ride for another month. Because of the regular training and increased fitness, I found myself a lot more capable in what would have once been stressful situations. My confidence and my self-esteem improved and I was able to maintain my composure in social activities. I was able to meet up with some of the Go the Journey Together riders to train and to talk about the ride. Towards the end of my preparation, I rode 20 kilometres to Mt Gravatt, scaled bottom to the summit 8 times and then rode home; it was at this stage that I began to feel confident I was able to participate in the Go the Journey Together bike ride.

We left Suncorp Stadium on Saturday the 16th of July, riding first to Pelican Park, Redcliffe with other invited groups of riders, including Anna Bligh – Deputy Premier of Queensland. From here, the core group of 8 riders continued on to Caloundra As we traversed back East and crossed the Gympie Highway to Caloundra, it hit me: here I was actually riding a bicycle with a group of dedicated people, fellow riders, support crew and other awareness raising people, all the way up the East Coast of Queensland from Brisbane to Cairns! It was such an emotional moment for me and it brought tears of joy to my eyes.

The following morning I awoke early to find the support crew folding our laundry in preparation for the days ride. We rode Caloundra to Gympie (135+ kilometres) and camped in a small church hall. On the Monday of the 18th (my birthday) we continued on to Maryborough. It was very cold as we left, about 3 degrees, and it was difficult for me to get into the riding that day. On the Tuesday, riding from Maryborough to Bundaberg, I really began to feel the effects of the ride in my legs. It didn’t help that we had a fierce crosswind for the final 30 kilometres. The latter stages of the next day’s ride to Gladstone (195 kilometres) were tremendously difficult to finish, but I was able to. I made full use of our support crew by pulling out 30 kilometres into the ride from Gladstone, becoming a spectator until lunch. I rejoined for the last part of that day’s ride into the central Queensland town of Rockhampton. I was part of a live ABC radio interview late that afternoon – something that I could not have done before the ride.

The following day was to be the longest I would ever have ridden in one day: 190+ kilometres, and we averaged almost 35 KPH. At this stage I was having difficulty walking. My legs were stiff and sore and I had open sores from the hours spent in the saddle. The following day we rode from St Lawrence to Mackay. That evening I began to apply ice to my right knee. The following morning I departed in a support vehicle and was only able to ride the final 87 km into Ayr. Tuesday I rode from Ayr to Townsville and finished some time behind the other riders. My legs were simply shot after that day’s ride. The following morning I attempted to ride but disappointingly had to pull out only 10 kilometres into the ride – the longest of the whole trip, 208 kilometres. That night in Tully, I was able to share my story and speak a little more comfortably. After a wonderful sleep and a hot breakfast in Tully, I rode the final 166 kilometres into Cairns with all of the other riders, where a very warm public greeted us. What a huge achievement.

During the ride I was able to share the following story at community events:

As a person with a mental illness, I have had periods in my life when I could see no hope for the future. I have spent long periods of time in hospitals undergoing treatments, and I had isolated myself as a result of my feelings. There have been times in my life when I, for whatever reason, have felt that my only option was to give in. In a way I had folded to the stigmas and common misconceptions of the vast majority of the population.

I now take full responsibility for my illness. And with my own coping strategies – my bike riding, diet and physical health, my peer support network, my relationships, my doctors, my medication, I am able to honestly say that I am just as capable of achieving my goals as is anyone else.

There are no barriers to achieving your goals just because you have a mental illness. We have wants and needs, as does anyone else. All that it takes is some commitment. Never underestimate your own potential, simply get involved in something, however small or trivial it may seem – this is a key to wellness. I can assure you, that only 3 years ago no one, least of all me, would have expected that I would be riding a bicycle to Cairns, but here I am. It wasn’t easy, I needed commitment and dedication but I got there. Follow your dreams whatever they may be.

I have now started to train in preparation for the Go the Journey Together Brisbane to Cairns bike ride 2006.

This material may be disseminated providing that ‘A Place To Belong’ is acknowledged as the author and owner of this work

David & Narelle

This is not McDonald’s mate.

A reflection on a visit to a mental health unit in Brisbane in 2002

I knew this wasn’t McDonald’s fast food where you get in a line and you will be serviced…but in my wildest dreams I never imagined waiting seven and a half hours!

So said David, one of the most easy-going guys you would ever meet. Just read this story and you will see what I mean. David’s job brings him into regular contact with distressed young people who need mental health support. On many occasions he has taken a person (out of work time) to his nearest mental health unit and waited up to four or five hours.

On the occasion in question he took a distressed young woman to the clinic and waited from 5pm until 12:30am for treatment. Narelle had sought David’s company as she knew she would need someone with her to cope with the excruciatingly long wait in confined quarters with other fragile people.

All types of people came into the waiting room while they were there. Some were brought in handcuffed by police. Some were intoxicated and some needed detox. “Waiting in a room four metres by three metres with a loud TV and a noisy water cooler it’s just like the back room of the hospital…Sitting there everyone was looking at one another…really inappropriate for people who are agitated…The situation was pretty tense”

This particular night the ward was one doctor short. Only one doctor was present to do the one hour assessment for each person. If there were six people in front of you, you knew you were in for a long wait!

Fortunately David was prepared. What did this experienced youth worker do to cope? He employed a few simple strategies – he played ball, he went for walks, he got people singing and he got people talking!

Firstly, he had made sure he brought a tennis ball. Finding a strip of concrete outside he took Narelle and bounced the ball for a while “trying to divert attention from what she was focusing on”.

For another while they stood in a corridor singing Beatles songs and any other tunes that they knew. This went well until a security guard wrestled someone to the ground in front of them. This upset Narelle as it brought back traumatic memories, so they stopped the sing-along.

Then for some of the time they were sitting in the waiting room David tried interacting with people there. Once they went outside for a smoke and a walk but another fellow came walking along with security after him and about four or five people jumped on him and bundled him off. “I don’t know what happened to him as we didn’t sight where he went.”

David struck up conversations with others. “We started a conversation about their experiences. There was camaraderie. Really rich to listen to them describing what it is like to be helpless, when they’re tied down and shackled, and had some type of sedative pumped into them…They were willing to admit that they did need medication and did need some time to calm down – but it is the way it is delivered that is the problem.”

Narelle looked after herself too. She recognised someone else at one stage and they consoled each other. As time went on Narelle needed to lie down, so David asked one of the staff if she could lie on a trolley in the corridor. She was not allowed to do this as people had to be admitted first before they could use a trolley, he was told.

Is the staff the problem? Not according to David. “I think the staff actually love Narelle and they know her quite well…They know what she is like. The nurses were good but they had a job to do. The security guards were friendly too, unless a confrontation arises when they’re going to be more aggressive.”

How can we do better? How can our high tech, sophisticated, expensive, professionalised, institutionalised, medical responses we have established encounter people in a more helpful way? More space, better communication about waiting times, mattresses or couches to lie on, attentive and calm people to talk with (as we have when we donate blood), not mixing inebriated, intoxicated and fragile people waiting for long periods in the same confined space, are all points that immediately come to mind.

Obviously there are micro issues that this story raises – about how this particular waiting room could become a place of solace, calm, recuperation and support rather than an agitated, uptight, constricted and volatile place. However this story also raises big picture systemic issues. It reminds us of the failure of most of our large service systems as they seek to respond to the needs of large numbers of people – particularly devalued and marginalised people. More funding will help, but the keys are more fundamental and central than dollars. It is about the heart of the response. Whether the system can nurture love and hope.

The story of David and Narelle contains seeds and pointers to where the way forward might be. David is a symbol of a more human and less institutional response. As a committed and compassionate ally of Narelle, David employed quite simple and inexpensive strategies to enable her and the others in that waiting room that night to avoid an explosive and volatile situation escalating. Playing ball, singing songs, chatting and walking together are all ordinary human activities. He demonstrated what a compassionate individual with time to share can do.

This story is a symbol of our options as we respond to people with mental health challenges. It is a reminder that we need to acknowledge that we are in a mess. However it also shows us a way forward – in more connected, careful, compassionate and ordinary community responses. David has waited with people in this waiting room many times with distressed people for “four to seven hours on average”. His closing comment says it all, “My mind goes out to anyone who hasn’t got anyone to talk to”.

NOTE: A formal complaint was made to this mental health unit about the evening described here. We are sending this discussion paper to the Minister for Health.

© A Place to Belong: An Anglicare Mental Health Network