MISA co-ordinators Kaveh Khan (left) and Thelia Franco (second from right) with program participants (l-r) Raymond Parry, Owen Leveridge, Mary, Vicki Scott, Dominic Kitching and Sergio Santos.
MISA co-ordinators Kaveh Khan (left) and Thelia Franco (second from right) with program participants (l-r) Raymond Parry, Owen Leveridge, Mary, Vicki Scott, Dominic Kitching and Sergio Santos.

Mental health program cut adrift

When Brad heard the support group he attends in Lismore for people with mental health and substance abuse issues would be closed down, he had a panic attack.

This week Brad and other participants of the MISA (Mental Illness and Substance Abuse) Lifestyle Support Program were told that after June funding for the program runs out and it will cease operating.

Last year the program was a finalist in the National Drug and Alcohol Awards for excellence in treatment and support. This year it is about to close.

MISA counsellor Thelia Franco said it’s the only dual diagnosis service in the Northern Rivers with support groups operating in Lismore, Ballina, Mullumbimby, Murwillumbah and Tweed Heads.

For Brad and other participants interviewed by The Echo, the thought of life without the MISA support group is frightening.

“It’s like we’re being cut adrift from the shoreline and then we’ll just be going down the river alone again,” Brad said. “Substance abuse and mental illness go hand in hand for so many people and in that respect it’s a unique service. Lismore is a pretty diverse and understanding place but it’s rare to be able to talk about yourself without any fear or judgement. For me personally there’s no alternative. AA isn’t suitable and neither is Richmond Clinic... compassionate understanding isn’t always something you get at other institutions.

“Leaving Richmond Clinic with nothing but a script for pills is scary... you walk out the door and you’re on your own. Sometimes it takes me three hours of hitching and walking to get here but it’s so worth it.”

The MISA outreach program has been administered by The Buttery and funded by the Australian Attorney General’s Department under the Proceeds of Crime Act. For the second time in six years the program received one-off funding, a three-year contract, which will run out shortly. As was the case three years ago, people like Brad who benefitted from the program will be left out in the cold again.

Thelia said she was disappointed with the fact they had not been able to secure recurrent funding from the state or federal government.

“One-off funding only creates expectations in the community. It does not serve the interest of the people,” she said.

Dominic Kitching, who suffers from depression, schizophrenia, and has struggled with drug abuse, said the emotional support he gets and the practical strategies he’s learnt through the group have kept him on the straight and narrow. “There’s no quick fix for mental illness but after coming here you walk out with weaponry to combat your demons,” Dominic said. “I don’t get a lot of interaction where I live but here there’s a real trust and camaraderie between us all and the co-ordinators... we’re not outcasts, we’re not alone, at least in this group. To be able to freely discuss things and have people listen without fear they’ll think I’m mad or I’ll be put in Richmond Clinic is an incredible feeling. Feeling heard is such an empowering thing.”

Dominic said for him, the MISA program was vital because no other service understood the link between his mental illness and drug abuse.

“The program offers a more holistic approach for people facing multiple issues,” he said. “Here I can learn how my prescribed meds would react with nicotine, marijuana, or any other drugs – I get the complete picture.

“The MISA workers have tremendous insight and knowledge, they know how to listen and they ask all the right questions.

“It seems senseless that such a great and helpful service is being stopped.”

Group participant Vicki Scott said that several times when she had wanted a drink the strategies she’d learnt in the group had helped her through it.

“I can talk about my problems here and be open about it because everyone’s in the same boat. Where do I go if it shuts down?” she asked. “Having a mental illness is like having a broken arm. You can’t tell a broken arm to snap out of it can you? It doesn’t get better... just because you can’t see our illness, just because it’s in our heads, doesn’t mean we can just snap out of it.

“Mental illness is such a big thing – people commit suicide for God’s sake. Crikey, if this does stop I reckon a few of our lives might stop too.”

Thelia said, unlike many other services that asked people to abstain from drugs or alcohol, MISA would accept people no matter what stage of their recovery they were at.

“We are a small, dedicated and professional team. The program runs on a shoestring, it’s a job of love not money,” Thelia said. “I think it works so well because we really care and understand the issues our clients must face on a daily basis. I think a lot of people with mental illness lose hope, and often society places them on the bottom rung.

“We work with them helping them to find their own inner strengths and potential, in which they have often lost belief.”

The MISA workers and their clients are not willing to give up yet and are planning a peaceful protest outside Richmond MP Justine Elliot’s office today (Thursday, March 4) where they will call on the federal government to provide ongoing funding for MISA.

“I don’t think the full implications of this closing will be felt until it’s gone... the ripple effect will be untold and I don’t think politicians realise that,” Dominic said.

“If they (politicians) cut the funding for heart disease or cancer programs there’d be complete outrage,” another participant added.

“But mental illness is just swept under the carpet.”

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