Listening to Understand
SAMHC Featured Blogger:
SA Mental Health Commissioner
We all have lived experience of something, whether it’s a school experience, parenting, work or even a sporting experience. Some experiences are positive and some might highlight a mistake we’ve made or an oversight. Much of the time we are eager to share our experience with others.
People who have experienced living with mental illness are sometimes keen to share what they have learned and to advocate for services that might assist others. Sadly, though for many, the experience itself or the fear of being stigmatised and discriminated against holds them silent.
I have experienced both. The advocate in me wanted to share my experiences at a local, state and national level to ensure that people were provided with better services and assisted to be the best they can be.
On the other hand, there was the more vulnerable side of me that I was not prepared to share. As I look back, I remember attending a conference many years ago and the speaker talked about trauma as a human experience, and the recovery that comes from working alongside peers with similar experiences. This is what we are seeing now with the bushfires, the coming together in shared grief. Being with another, looking at what is helpful was a turning point for me in my recovery journey. I was inspired to become a peer worker and to ensure that peer workers were embedded across all facets of the mental health system. However, despite the rhetoric, peer work today is quite misunderstood.
I’ve noticed that, throughout history, we have seen people make decisions for others based on a judgement of what they believe is in the person’s best interest. Decisions based on values learned in childhood, knowledge gained from education, lessons learned from life, professional values along with the bias we bring from the race or class we have grown up in. As I reflect upon my own lived experience, decisions were made for me by others far too often, many of which have had long term detrimental effects.
I have learned over many years, that listening to people without judgement is indeed a difficult skill. It required putting aside my opinions along with constant reflection and growth. Being a peer worker has allowed me to connect to people with similar experiences and has enabled me to see the person, beyond the diagnosis, beyond judgement with a life that has potential to be the best it can be.
It is much like comparing sympathy and empathy. We can be sympathetic to someone’s needs. We can connect to having had a similar experience, but can still hold judgement by putting forward suggestions based on our own experience. For example, “I understand that this is hard for you, but I know that …might be helpful. Upon reflection, people were often sympathetic towards me during my illness, they would feel sorry for me, but they still made decisions based on what they thought was best for me. They judged whether I was trying hard enough, labelled and categorised me. This often did more harm than good from my perspective.
Empathy on the other hand is about putting aside all judgement. Ditching everything we know and connecting only to a feeling. The feeling of being human and being able to be with another in situations that can feel very uncomfortable.
I am guided in the work that I do in peer work, advocacy and the Commissioner role by the feeling of being human, putting aside my vulnerabilities and taking time and being willing to put the other person first. I believe that the best approach to mental health services and supports is to be with someone, connect to what it might feel like, to be free of judgement and truly listen.
I feel very privileged to be appointed as a Mental Health Commissioner.
My focus will be on listening, connecting with the experiences of others, and hearing from people affected by mental illness about what is helpful and what works for them. This will provide advice and guidance and steer us in the right direction of where we need to go to assist individuals, not only within mental health services but within whole communities.
By Heather Nowak
SA Mental Health Commissioner
Heather Nowak has been a consumer of mental health services for the past 35 years and has experienced many of the difficulties faced by people in metropolitan and particularly regional areas. She is passionate about using her lived experience to ensure better planning, design and delivery of services to improve people’s recovery.
Heather is a National Peer Champion and has been a Peer Worker in the Personal Helpers and Mentors (PHaMs) program in Adelaide and in the South-East. She helped develop the National Qualification for Peer Workers and assisted in co-designing the resources for Certificate IV Mental Health Peer Work, which she currently delivers at TAFE SA.
Heather is a member of the National Consumer and Carer Forum and is a member of the Beyond Blue Speakers Bureau and Blue Voices.
In 2011, she was awarded the Dr Margaret Tobin Award, for outstanding contribution to improvements for people with, or at risk of developing, a mental illness.
SAMHC Featured Bloggers
The SAMHC presents our series of guest featured bloggers who generously share their personal thoughts and experiences of mental health and wellbeing.