THE pneumatic pounding of a jackhammer jangles your nerves even before you reach the front door.
The slowly evolving construction zone that surrounds Wagga’s mental health unit is an unlikely metaphor for the transformation clients undergo inside.
They walk in as a work in progress. They walk out more complete.
Inside, the mental health unit is a sea of tranquility - think pastel coloured furniture and glass internal walls with images of trees frosted over them.
This is as far removed from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as you could imagine.
We take the lift to the second floor and are greeted by nursing unit manager Innes Clarke, who speaks with a soft Scottish accent and has humanity in his eyes.
He heads up the mental health recovery unit, and there’s nothing like it in the state.
A non-acute setting, clients struggling with life can simply admit themselves, be referred through a GP, or progress from the unit’s acute ward.
They enter into an eight-week live-in recovery program, covering everything from intense cognitive behavioural therapy to assertiveness training, from mindfulness to meal planning.
While the program is in its infancy, it is already transforming lives, according to Mr Clarke.
“Mental illness is not just about people feeling suicidal,” he said.
“A lot of our consumers, through their illness, have become disconnected from family, have a lack of employment or are neglecting themselves.
“Drugs and alcohol often compound those problems.
“There are so many people out there in our community being managed by their GPs and non-government organisations.
“They might see their GP every three months and while they’re not getting better, they don’t need emergency services either.
“We try and provide an environment that’s a bit more like home.
“It’s designed to help people come out the other end with a whole toolbox of life skills.”
Trust is the bedrock of the unit, he said.
Clients are welcome to come and go as they please (they’re even given keys), and the kitchen is self-service and open all hours.
At the end of the eight weeks, they have a special graduation ceremony, with family and friends invited.
On this day, a few graduates have come back to share their experiences with the program.
One of them, mum of four Tanya, who did not wish to use her full name, credits the program with saving her life.
Battling depression, post traumatic stress and borderline personality disorder, Tanya tried to take her own life in April.
“I said goodbye to my children; I felt this was a rational decision and it would be best for everyone if they didn’t have to watch me suffer,” she said.
She was found by an ambulance lying motionless in her car on the side of a Gundagai road, her blood swimming in a near lethal dose of insulin.
She was scheduled and spent weeks in the hospital’s high dependency unit.
As the fog cleared, she entered into the mental health recovery program.
“This has changed everything,” she said.
“It’s given me hope for the future and given me the tools I need to deal with my stress.
“It’s really been a life-changing thing.”
Tanya has moved into her own home in Wagga, is looking for work and will soon be reunited with her children.
Another graduate, Junee mum Gail Schmarr, is similarly effusive in her praise for the program.
She was struck down by a bolt of severe depression in February last year and landed in the mental health unit’s acute ward.
“I’d had depression for 17 years but with this episode, it just felt like the world had crumbled around me,” she said.
“There was just nothing going in; it had me good.”
The recovery program has sparked a seismic shift in her thinking, she said.
“It’s made me think of things in a more positive way,” she said.
“I’ve now got the confidence to step outside my comfort zone.
“I’ve made some lifelong friends and we all support each other.
“If I have an episode, I can now get through it in 24 hours, rather than the month it used to take me.”
Mr Clarke said the bonds consumers made with one another were a critical plank in the program’s success.
Griffith man Trent Forbes was bereft of hope and emotionally “bottomed out” in the weeks before entering the program.
A wrestle with anxiety and drug and alcohol addiction had sparked severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I was very nervous about coming here, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
“I couldn’t talk to people, I couldn’t look them in the eye.
“But this has lifted my self-esteem so much, it’s hard to explain.
“This feels like a new start to me.”
Simone Threlfall, 24, will graduate from the program in two weeks.
After an adolescence pockmarked by family disputes and drugs, she said the program had been a journey in self-discovery.
“It’s helped me understand myself and recognised my mental illness,” she said.
“I’ve been drug-free for seven years and this place has given me the confidence to want more from life.
“I’ve just bought my first car and am training to be a hairdresser.
“I’m feeling better than I have in a long time.”
*** If you need help you can call the Wagga mental health unit on 59431820, beyondblue: 1300 224 636. Lifeline: 13 11 14; Kids Help Line: 1800 551 800; Sunflower House: 6931 8770; Carer Assist 6925 9399; community mental health access line: 1800 800 944 or Riverina Headspace: 6923 3170.
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