Experience counts in mental health

Lived Experience Project participants with project co-ordinator Gabrielle LeBon and Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Caring, Jan McLucas.
Lived Experience Project participants with project co-ordinator Gabrielle LeBon and Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Caring, Jan McLucas.

After living with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder for most of her life, Maria Breene is now on her way to becoming a peer support worker, helping other people in the community with mental illness. Maria is taking part in the Lived Experience Project (LEP), a ground-breaking new program designed to educate people with a lived experience of mental illness and support them to enter paid employment in the mental health sector.

"Since I became part of the project, I've been told recovery is possible and have been given permission to live my life again," Maria said. "I thought it was impossible, now my life experiences have been validated."

From the age of six, Maria Breene cared for her sick mother and younger brother. Later in her life, after getting three university degrees, having children, getting married and working with Surf Lifesaving Australia, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar.

"I didn't really have a childhood," Maria said. "I found out the first bipolar episode would have taken place 10 years before, when I was in my teens. I experienced the depths of depression and mesmerising mania. At the peak of my mania, I re-wrote the Surf Lifesaving manual and doubled the club membership - four years work in eight months. Nothing stopped me, even a serious boat accident," she laughed.

After she was diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, she lost her dream job, was discriminated against and her child was stigmatised because of her mum's mental illness.

"I was scrutinised at every turn as a mother," Maria said. "I had always been an efficient and involved worker and I wanted to get a job in the mental health industry and so jumped at the chance to get involved with the project."

Maria now manages her illness with medication, and is looking forward to finishing her Certificate IV in Community Services at ACE Community Colleges and starting work as a peer support worker.

"I want to educate the community and reduce stigma and discrimination," she said. "Now, the job opportunities are endless. I will be going out there as a force to be reckoned with."

Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Caring, Jan McLucas was in Lismore yesterday (Wednesday) to launch the project.

Lived Experience project officer Gabrielle LeBon, who works for the Northern Rivers Social Development Council, said the project was much needed, not only in the Northern Rivers region, but across Australia.

"There is a great need for peer support workers in the acute mental health sector," she said. "We hope to turn adversity into opportunity and get more people into education and work who have not been involved in it for a long time."

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