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Steps to recovery — Residential mental health service changing lives in Albany

For two decades, Heidi has faced an uphill battle with her mental health.

The Albany woman has been on a “rollercoaster” through hospital rooms, counsellors’ offices and psychiatry clinics since she was diagnosed with severe depression at the age of 10.

“You name it, I’ve tried it,” she said.

But this year, the 30-year-old says she found something that finally clicked.

In April, she checked in to the Albany Step Up Step Down service.

Heidi is among nearly 60 people who have called the service home over the past two years.

The first of its kind in regional WA, the six-bed residential facility, run by Neami National, was opened by the WA Government’s Mental Health Commission in November 2018.

It joined a 22-bed facility in Joondalup and a 10-bed facility in Rockingham.

Within its walls, people experiencing mental health issues have a safe and supportive place to focus on rehabilitation and recovery for up to 28 days after a referral from a GP or healthcare professional.

For people “stepping up” at the onset of a mental health episode, it can prevent hospital admission.

The door is also open for people “stepping down” from a hospital discharge before returning to their daily lives.

Although nurses and clinical support are available seven days a week, the service helps people recover in a mostly non-clinical way through community, classes and counselling.

It is a place where people can sharpen their life skills after an episode of mental illness.

The services have been deemed a success, with the McGowan Government providing $28 million in funding to roll out beds in Broome, Bunbury, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Karratha.

But Heidi said recovery looked different for every person who walked through the doors.

“For me, success was getting back on my feet, discovering who I really am and the path that I wanted to take,” she said.

“I’ve had two acute hospital stays. You go into the psych ward and you are extremely ill.

“Then they get you to a point where after maybe three or four days you are not so suicidal or not so acute, and you are farmed out.

“But really you haven’t learnt any skills, you haven’t learnt any strengths.

“You go back into the community and you are none the wiser.”

Heidi is not alone.

One in five Australians aged 16-85 experience mental health issues in any given year. In January this year, there were 1421 mental health inpatient admissions to WA hospitals.

Growing up in the South West, Heidi said she felt the services she needed to recover were out of reach.

But in Step Up Step Down, Heidi said she found a space where she could “completely transform”.

“You are given the skills, the tools and the connections to keep you well and can keep you from hospital, not just to fix you up for a few days,” she said.

“You can start your recovery journey rather than just putting a bandaid on it. It’s completely different and it is so, so essential.”

Heidi has now joined Step Up Step Down as a staff member, helping others on their journey.

“Being in here, I feel like I grew a backbone,” she said.

“It took a while … but I could walk out confidently knowing who I am and where I want to be.

“I have all the tools under my belt to keep me well and keep me going.

“I haven’t had a relapse since.

“Of course, you have wobbly days, but I am able now to say, ‘OK, that bell is ringing — time to do something’.”

Albany Step Up Step Down manager Damien Roper said the service was about listening to the needs and goals of its consumers.

“For some people, that means reducing their admissions into hospital, getting back to study, or reconnecting to family,” he said.

“For some people that means having a supportive network around them rather than trying to manage their mental health in isolation.”

Mr Roper said taking the first step was often the hardest.

“Often ill mental health makes us feel really isolated,” he said.

“We feel like we are the only person on the planet that is in that suffering.

“There are ways back to wellness. We have a really firm belief in recovery and that it is possible for everybody.

“That starts with putting your hand up and saying ‘I am struggling’.”

If you are in crisis and need help now, call Lifeline 13 11 14.

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