Broadford woman Roslyn Stewart and her dog Violet, who she is training to be an emotional support dog.

By Colin MacGillivray

PEOPLE with lived experience will be at the forefront of Victoria’s decade-long task of reshaping its mental health system, and nobody is more prepared to provide guidance than Broadford’s Roslyn Stewart.

Ms Stewart is a qualified pharmacist, mental health first-aid instructor, a member of the Goulburn Mental Health and Wellbeing Committee and Mitchell Suicide Prevention Network and is training to establish and facilitate a suicide support group, but it is her own 40-year battle with mental health that she believes truly allows her to connect with other people living with mental illness.

Ms Stewart developed an eating disorder at 18, which spiralled when she moved to Melbourne to attend university.

She was hospitalised seven times during the next decade and a half, and starting at age 31 spent about 18 months in hospital during a two-year period. It was a turning point in her life.

“One day I thought, ‘I just can’t do this anymore. I either go, or I do something about it’. At the time I was only 33 kilos and my kidneys were going. They said I was a hopeless case and I would be dead in a month,” she said.

“I thought, ‘no one calls me hopeless’, so I started to eat and I slowly came back.

“I found the right therapist to help me after having had lots of them before, and slowly, slowly, like a snail putting its head out of the shell, I’d make a little step forward and then put my head back in.”

While Ms Stewart benefitted from mental health support services in Melbourne, when she moved back to Broadford to serve as a carer for her ill mother she found a stark difference.

“When I came back up to the country, it was completely different. Those services weren’t available to people, and that seemed to me to not be right,” she said.

“At one stage there was no psychiatrist in Mitchell Shire. You had to go to Melbourne. For people who are in emotional distress, counsellors are useful, but if you need medication you need a psychiatrist.”

Ms Stewart said in lieu of mental health services, the best support was often provided by a tight-knit community.

“When I got back to Broadford I felt as if there was this completeness. In Broadford, I am somebody. People know me. It’s completely different to Melbourne,” she said.

“I’m so grateful for people who stuck by me and kept me alive until I decided to start working to get better, and supported me when I was on that journey as well. Not everyone has that support.”

Having received the support of family, friends and the community during her mental health struggles, Ms Stewart found she wanted to give back.

“Now and then I find I have this passion to help other people and to say, ‘there are other people who care about you, you’re not on your own’,” she said.

“To come back from any mental illness is not easy. It takes courage, it takes perseverance and it takes support from others. The support is really important.

“While there is life, there is hope. Even for people who attempt suicide.

“I sit with them, and often they’re angry because they’re still here, and I tell them I know how it is because I’ve been there and felt like that, but it can be different.

“Being able to say that you’ve been there and they can genuinely sense that, it really does make a difference compared to an ordinary support worker telling them they’ll get through it.”

Ms Stewart is now concentrating on helping to shape better mental health services, after last year’s Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System recommended people with lived experience be given more input.

“I’ve joined an organisation called VMIAC, Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council, and they’re the ones who are going to direct how it is set up,” she said.

“It’s a very exciting time for people with lived experience.”

Among the changes Ms Stewart would like to see are holistic support hubs that integrate not only mental health counselling but financial and housing assistance.

She said she would also like to see further exploration of a concept known as social prescribing, where a doctor can refer patients to people who provide company and help someone suffering mental illness to integrate into the community.

But with many reforms expected to take the better part of a decade to implement, Ms Stewart said leaning on a local support network was still the best thing people could do.

“I’ve been to training to set up a support group for people affected by suicide, and I’ll keep going with my work with the suicide prevention network doing mental health first aid training,” she said.

“There’s nothing wrong with talking about it. There is still stigma. A lot of the stigma comes from the person suffering as well – the fear of the stigma and the sense of failure because you can’t cope.

“The first thing you usually notice is a change in the person. A good way to start the conversation is to mention the change in behaviour that you’ve noticed, saying ‘I’ve noticed you’re not managing to get your work done like you used to’, or ‘I’ve noticed you’re taking a lot of days off sick’.

“By concentrating on the behaviour rather than asking ‘are you depressed?’ you can start the conversation.”