After a long battle with bipolar disorder, a West Australian woman has started a mental health peer-support network and found a form of therapy that works — supporting others.
For years, Jo Brown’s life was on the brink.
“Every other month I was suicidally depressed,” Ms Brown said.
“I was crying, I couldn’t get myself off the floor.”
Ms Brown did not know it at the time, but she was living with Bipolar Type II Disorder.
“I spent most of my life living with that unmedicated. I was 38 by the time I finally got diagnosed and started getting medication,” she said.
“When I was on a high, I would be up in the middle of the night cooking enough food to last the month, while cleaning the windows and changing the sheets.
“My life was an absolute mess … I’m surprised I’m still alive today.”
Finding a way to cope
Ms Brown found relief in medication and therapy.
“It showed me a way to cope, to bring my emotional self and my logical self into balance with each other,” she said.
Soon after, she relocated from Toowoomba in Queensland to Albany on the WA south coast.
But Ms Brown found depression support services in regional WA lacking and she spiralled again.
“When I came to Albany there was nothing for adults with depression,” she said.
Ms Brown saw a call to action.
“I thought I need this for myself, but how many other people need it for them too?” she said.
“If I can save just one life, even if it’s my own, then it’s worth it. So I decided that I was going to start something.”
Supporting people with depression
With only her own experiences to guide her, Ms Brown took the first steps towards opening a support centre for people with depression in her area.
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“I found a mental health nurse and said to her, ‘I want to start something, would you be involved?'” Ms Brown said.
“I’ve had to learn one thing after another and pick up bits and pieces from here and there. I talk to people at other agencies. They’ve been very helpful in their advice.
“A lot of the non-government organisations were very supportive. If they had a training course, they asked if I wanted to join them for free.
“I did training in suicide intervention, mental health first-aid — anything I could.”
Ms Brown reached out to others in the community dealing with depression.
“We said, ‘We’re here to help. We’re not going to tell you what we’re going to do, we want you to tell us’,” she said.
“I pulled people from all over the place [and] we started meeting in each other’s homes, trying to work out what we were going to do.”
Albany’s Depression Support Network begins
After six months of negotiating with Albany City Council for a building with an affordable lease, Albany’s Depression Support Network opened the doors to its own facility in August 2013.
Ms Brown recently signed a new five-year lease, meaning the centre is here to stay.
“Today we have our own building, but we also have a safe place. People can come in, we have a main room to sit and talk [without] being judged,” she said.
“We do things like craft groups. We have walking groups. We have meals, [and] we’ve taken on Work for the Dole people.”
The network has transformed a flat, lifeless yard in Albany’s Spencer Park into a thriving garden and vegetable patch.
As a federally registered health promotion charity, Ms Brown has submitted annual reports to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and to partner organisation Act Belong Commit, an evidence-based mental health promotion program funded by the WA Government.
In addition, yearly audits have been undertaken and presented to the WA Government, stakeholders and members.
The network survives on a combination of private donations, government grants and old-fashioned sausage sizzle fundraising, needing about $13,000 each year to pay the rent and keep the lights on.
Volunteers ensure a range of programs each day for people to drop-in and attend, and are able to discuss mental health issues with people in similar circumstances.
“I’ve found the biggest comment people have made is that they don’t feel judged here,” Ms Brown said.
“I think it’s important that you feel safe. I think it’s important that you feel respected and cared about. I think it’s important that all the senses are involved.”
‘Wonders for my self-esteem’
Seven years later, turning her own illness into a light for others has been therapy in itself for Ms Brown.
She still experiences highs and lows, but said her bouts with bipolar were not as overwhelming as they used to be.
“I feel really blessed and I feel really positive. It’s done wonders for my self-esteem,” Ms Brown said.
“There was a time when I was told I had no self-esteem at all, because of my mental illness.
“It makes me feel that I’m valued. But it also makes me feel great to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Ms Brown advocates for better mental health services in regional WA, especially calling for specialised services to deal with overlapping drug and alcohol addiction.
She still requires medication, but said that staying active had brought its own forward momentum.
“To give people the love to feel that life is worth living. To provide them with answers when they felt there was none. It makes me feel really blessed,” she said.
Topics: mental-health, depression, people, albany-6330, toowoomba-4350
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