Gaynor Bowie Thearle Presentation – Tuesday 25th October 2016
Asia Pacific International Mental Health Conference 24-26th October 2016
It was 10 years ago, when a group of parents who had adult children living with persistent and enduring mental illness, asked for help.
Their growing concern was that while they were doing all they could to support and care for their children, they also knew of course that they themselves were getting older, they did not have the professional expertise to help their children adequately, and they worried about the welfare and accommodation of their children when they were gone or no longer able to be there for them. Something had to change now before these parents became too much older.
With significant support from Wesley Mission Brisbane, the National council of Women Queensland, and the Northside Branch of the Mental Illness Fellowship, Mantle Housing Ltd was formed in 2006.
Mantle Housing Ltd is a not-for-profit public company limited by guarantee.
Our vision is to provide opportunities for a life full of dignity and hope for individuals living with persistent and enduring psychiatric disabilities.
The Mantle mission is to build a safe and secure, affordable and permanent home for adults living with mental illness and give them support as and when they need it.
We now have Clear Breeze, a purpose built 14 single bedroomed apartment block, with on-sight support, at Mitchelton, a suburb in Brisbane. It is of course fully occupied. In fact Clear Breeze has just had its 1st Birthday.
Our aim is to build many more of these unique villages.
Wesley Mission Brisbane very generously partnered with Mantle Housing Ltd, and they are also for the time being, staffing the facility with mental health recovery personnel 24/7.
Wesley Mission Brisbane’s mission, states, ‘We walk alongside people in need, offering care and compassion and promoting choice,
independence and community wellbeing,’ and this is exactly what they have done.
By way of background let me explain, as you will probably know, people with a mental illness used to be accommodated in mental institutions up until 1970s. These institutions were breeding grounds for all manner of abuse including mental and physical mistreatment.
The deinstitutionalisation of these mental health facilities has turned out to be no better for the living conditions of many people who have a significant mental illness. Many of these people are now living in unsupervised public housing or unsavoury boarding houses or hostels which are not conducive to these vulnerable people going forward in their lives.
How would we feel if we did not have a safe, secure, affordable home to go to?
How would we feel if we did not know where we were going to sleep tonight?
How do we expect, people with a mental illness to survive or repair their lives if they do not have appropriate accommodation?
Safe, affordable secure and permanent accommodation is a fundamental right for everyone, let alone those living with a disability.
Now I would like to give you a picture of what it is like for the parents of someone with a severe and enduring mental illness.
Imagine if you will a typical family. Two parents with two or three children who range from leaving school, to living independently with a job, may be a good job, or going through tertiary education. One of them starts to behave differently from the expected norm. This is explained away as ‘It’s a stage he is going through’ or ‘He or she is under a lot of pressure at work’ or ‘He is talking to someone and no one is there’or ‘He’ll get over it’
If he or she is living away from home, the parents may not know about this, until there is a knock on the door from the police to say their child is in a mental health facility or worse still, the watch house.
My heart starts to pound when I remember this happening to me. The parents have total panic, and I mean panic. This is the start of their night mare that will affect the whole family for ever.
Parents are not necessarily mental health professionals, and even if they do have some mental health training, they are too emotionally involved to be effective. So life for these parents is a total worry, full of anxiety, scared, frightened of what will happen next. When there is an eventual diagnosis for their loved one’s condition, there is often disbelief or denial. The parents will want to fix it. They feel responsible and guilty. ‘What have I done wrong?’ or ‘Why can’t he or she just pull themselves together?’
Not all members of the family will have the same opinion on the diagnosis and treatment, or how to handle this new dilemma with in the family. It is my observation that a situation like this becomes a huge challenge for the stability of the family. If the parents don’t have a strong supportive bond for each other, a rift between the two parents often develops and divorce is not uncommon. This often may lead to even more tragedy in the family and mean that the young adult with the mental illness is often left with only one parent to support them. Life for that parent, and the rest of the family whether together or not is a series of continual catastrophes. Yet, everyone is trying their hardest in their own way to do their best. In my opinion all families of people living with an adult child with a mental illness, are really struggling.
While preparing for this talk I asked other members of the Mantle Housing Parent Support Group for their thoughts so a lot of what I tell you comes from them as well.
I feel it is worth pointing out that people with a mental illness are there through no fault of their own. They did not ask to have a mental illness or knowingly cause their illness. They did not wake up one morning and say ‘I think I will work towards getting a mental illness.’ They do not enjoy being unwell.
As one mother pointed out the lack of stable affordable accommodation creates issues of vulnerability which often leads to homelessness and social isolation. Alcohol or drugs are often used to
escape from the pain of their illness. Addiction can follow causing even more problems. When intervention does occur it is a much longer road back to stability as there is the addiction to overcome as well.
So when we come across an alcoholic or someone using drugs we should try not to judge as there could quite possibly, be an underlying mental illness from which they are trying to escape. I am not for one moment suggesting that is an excuse for their substance abuse and disruptive behaviour but it could be an underlying reason. It is help that person needs not judgement.
Another parent talked about the difficulty of their adult child with a mental illness, living at home. Having to evict their child from home because of his disruptive behaviour was harrowing. They had the added anxiety of wondering where he was living, was he safe, was he with good people and was he taking his medications. Being in their late seventies they had increasing concern for his future. Their son had applied for Government Housing but the waiting lists were frustratingly long so he spent much of his time ‘couch surfing’ at so called friends’ places.
One of the residents of Clear Breeze who had been fortunate enough to get a Housing Commission flat, told me that because they were unsupervised there were neighbours with raucous behaviour and police were having to visit the complex regularly. It made her feel unsafe, anxious and isolated. Now that she is at Clear Breeze she is relaxed, she feels safe emotionally and physically, she has friends around her and best of all she can get help if she needs it.
So now, I hope you can understand a little about why this group of parents went to Wesley Mission Brisbane for help. Their children were in that terrible cycle of being hospitalised, often for long periods, then discharged back to home or inappropriate housing, with no or inadequate support which could lead to their not taking their medication properly and often this may lead to their becoming mentally unwell again. As you would know the police are often involved, with laws broken. With luck, their child would go back to hospital and not to jail. It is really hard to describe the anguish these parents go through.
Wesley Mission Brisbane now Wesley Mission Queensland have partnered with Mantle Housing Ltd to build our first ‘village’. It has been a long and arduous journey but with their very able help we have made it.
We are now looking at building additional permanent homes for people with a severe and enduring mental illness. So far there are only14 people who have been able to ‘unpack their bags’. They can now look forward to being an asset to their community. They will have fewer admissions to hospital and NO involvement with the police which in itself is an asset to society.
Their parents can take a collective sigh of relief knowing their child is safe and someone else is there to help if needed. Time spent with their son or daughter is different now. They can do fun things together.
They can get on with their own lives and do that bucket list after all.
May I remind you that Mantle Housing Ltd was started by a small group of concerned everyday parents with no experience in appropriate housing at all? If you are in the same boat as we were, please know that if we were able to do this then so can you. Get in touch with us. We would love to help you.
In conclusion I want to encourage professionals, the corporate sector, government and the public to take the initiative and get involved.
Don’t think that someone else will do it. I suspect there may be quite a number of you who have a relative, or know of someone, who has a mental illness. They will be needing safe, secure, affordable, permanent and supported accommodation so, like the 14 residents of Clear Breeze, they too can take their rightful place as productive members of society.
Thank you all so much.