The Journey From Carer To Peer Worker
Melissa is a Peer Support Worker at HelpingMinds but her journey, like so many others, started as a carer
My first contact with HelpingMinds (known then as Arafmi) was over a phone call I made reluctantly and nervously. I did not think there were supports for me as a carer, not that I really understood that I was a carer, and I thought I was coping fine. I also didn’t think people really would understand my situation, particularly as a diagnosis for my mother was not yet confirmed.
Thankfully the response on the end of the line was “that’s ok, it can be really hard to get the diagnosis, you still did the right thing in calling us”. At that point many of my fears were elevated. And so began my journey of recovery as a carer and family member.
I started off like many of us do, a client unsure of what I wanted and not really accepting my situation or emotions. I admit I attended my first counselling session quite angry at a mental health system that I felt had let down me and my mother. I openly told the counsellor that they would unhelpfully be just like all the other workers. I am glad to say he rose to the challenge and was nothing like the previous workers I had met. Through the counselling I grew in understanding my mother’s mental illness, understanding myself and being able to deal more effectively with my emotions and the situation.
Eventually I moved from counselling to carer support groups, workshops and respite. Finally, I was asked to volunteer and help out within the HelpingMinds organisation. I still did not think I was good enough or had much to contribute but I nervously agreed. I became involved with running and designing support group programs, speaking about my experience as a carer and family member at events and volunteering on the Changing Minds school education program where I spoke about my experiences. It was not until I was appointed to the Board that I really understood that HelpingMinds had Peer Work and lived experience as a central value.
It was from this place on the Board that I then moved into an employed role within HelpingMinds and then one of the Carer Peer Support Workers. Somehow that nervous, angry, hurt and confused client had become a Peer Worker contributing to the organisation, valued by the organisation and ultimately helping other’s in similar situations.
Although it was never my intention I am so very thankful for the opportunities that allow me to be where I am today. So for others, who might be where I once was I have made a checklist to help guide you as a potential Peer Worker (or other worker):
Work on yourself.
Attend counselling, join every workshop, support group, therapy, and program you can to develop yourself. You may need to face some difficult thoughts and feelings but that is how you grow and become stronger.
Learn about your situation but also other situations, don’t just learn about the mental illness that affects your family member, learn about them all. Use books, websites, factsheets, information sessions and training courses.
Practice what you learn.
Staying well yourself is imperative which means you must practice the strategies you learn about every day. This means making sure you have good boundaries yourself, engaging in mental health services for yourself when you need to and having good routines and self-care.
Start with small steps.
Don’t jump right in there, this is a new career and learning new things takes time. Plus, your confidence will grow over time so its ok to be nervous or feel a little lost at times. Start by watching other Peer Workers at presentations, talking with someone who is a Peer Worker and then slowly increase your involvement.
Get comfortable talking.
Practice what you will say, know what areas you are ok to talk about and what is a topic that is too sensitive to talk about right now. Learn to pick up on your body’s stress cues and practice how you will politely decline answering a question that you aren’t ready to answer. Remember to constantly self-reflect, if you’re having a bad day you might not be able to talk about something you normally would, or you might grow and be able to talk about things you once couldn’t.
So enjoy YOUR recovery and I look forward to meeting you as a future Peer Worker.
By Melissa Webb – Carer Peer Worker