Disability Opinion

Mental health: Why our voice matters

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Returning to self-agency once inside the mental health system can be hard (Image via Mental Health America | Pexels)

Convinced it was their destiny to rot away inside a mental health system with limited capacity to help, Fi Peel's return to community connectedness came down to a single factor: they used their voice.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide

DURING THE first wave of COVID lockdowns, my life began to change. For the better.

In December 2019, following escape from domestic violence, I survived the worst suicide attempt I had ever experienced in a 13-year-long battle with suicidal ideation. Shortly after that, I found myself trapped in an evacuation centre on the South Coast NSW as the Black Summer fires threatened to decimate the region that had been my home for more than 30 years.

Escaping the fire-front, driving as fast as I dared up the newly reopened Princes Highway at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I knew something in my life desperately needed to change. 

When COVID lockdowns descended, I was not afraid of the social isolation that gripped many in our community. A National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participant only since August of 2019, settling into my new locale of Bathurst, unsure of where to go to find support, I was justifiably worried about where I would find food and the risk of homelessness I found myself facing. But years of social isolation and disconnect had desensitised me to the loss of social connection many others were grappling with. 

I did what I could. I had already signed up for singing lessons at the local conservatorium, joined a choir and auditioned for a local community theatre production. I kept myself busy during lockdown with projects I had wanted to focus on for many years but had never had the self-confidence to follow through on, interspersed with Netflix binges and catching up with family and friends via phone and zoom in distances far-flung.

I joined social media networking groups for career pathways I had trained for but was afraid to believe I might be right for. I began wrestling with audio and video editing, submitting digital auditions for upcoming projects. I began to develop a business platform I had hoped would create opportunities to work for myself. I even found myself pitching my own creative ideas. 

As the world began to open up once more, so did my opportunities to connect with the local community and communities further afield. I found myself cast in a lead role in a Shakespearean production and invited to participate in the paid co-design development of a suicide prevention outreach team for the region I had earlier been forced to escape.

I was tasked with producing a community storytelling event that challenged the stigma around mental health experiences through the sharing of lived experience stories of inspiring individuals who understood what it was to struggle and thrive with, through and beyond the lens of “mental illness”. I shared my own story too. I was learning what it was to raise my voice. 

As the world continued to expand, I found myself with more opportunities to work, create, write, speak and even perform. But 18 months after this incredible turn-around, I found myself reeling as the penny finally dropped. An engagement I had been invited to speak at pinned me and every other speaker at the conference as leaders in “mental health reform”.

Of course, I knew that this was the field I was contributing to, but the empowerment of what I had been stepping into left me breathless. I wondered how I had found myself here, when not two years earlier, I was convinced that it was my destiny to rot away inside a mental health system that had limited resources and capacity to help me. It boiled down to one single factor: I used my voice. 

The National Lived Experience (Peer) Workforce Development Guidelines, released by the National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) in December 2021, draw attention to the reality that for many:

Accessing services, particularly involuntarily, includes surrendering a degree of control and autonomy. Returning to self-agency can be a long and difficult process and is not something that people are taught how to do. As a result, at times, people who access services can develop what is known as a "patient identity", taking a more passive role in decisions and becoming overly dependent on the opinions of others.

This was a reality that had become so strongly entrenched in my own life, that, unbeknown to me, the only way I was ever going to overcome it would be to isolate myself in a community that did not know me in the middle of a pandemic, forcing me back onto my own internal resourcing. 

This process taught me so much — not only about my own capacity to rise but about the systemic nature of hurdles that reactivated narratives of disempowerment that no one human can overcome alone.

Finding networks of fellow journeyers and walking alongside each other in solidarity has allowed me to withstand blow after blow after blow, delivered to many of us in the LGBTQI+ community; our fellow First Nations people; those experiencing domestic violence; the homeless and others forced to navigate social, welfare and aged care services like Centrelink and the NDIS, while grappling stigma, discrimination and bureaucratic red tape. 

It is not surprising that many have felt disillusioned in the week leading up to the Federal Election, questioning whether our voices will be heard or even matter.

As someone, though, who has learned to embrace the power of using one's voice to engender deep thought and inspire social change, I remain mindful of the fact that we live in a country where our collective voices interlace through the fabric of our social and political worlds.

Most of us know hardship. We know what we want to change and why.

When we do our homework, understand the platforms of the parties we are leaning towards and make our assessments based on strengths and weaknesses and not the glibness of public relations machines, we imbue our voices with the power of social change.

As we await the full outcome, having voted in this Federal Election, I will remember what it is to be treated with dignity and respect.

Our voices do matter.

If you would like to speak to someone about suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Fi Peel works independently as a lived-experience mental health recovery specialist. You can follow Fi on Twitter @fi_peel.

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