17 participants of the two year program were presented with their qualifications at a formal ceremony at Wodonga TAFE
Charting a new course for mental health
By Suzi Taylor (
A bold, innovative training program from north-east Victoria proves transformative for people with psychiatric and learning disabilities. It would make Huckleberry Finn proud.
In a world first, Wodonga TAFE joined forces with St Luke’s Anglicare to create an education program with a twist. The goal? To teach students how to build five boats from scratch, then support them to organise, fundraise and participate in an 11 day journey down the Murray River. The program, dubbed ‘River 2 Recovery’, would also be an opportunity to address the stigma and isolation experienced by many with mental health challenges, through bringing people together and through showing the world at large what extraordinary achievements are possible, when the right support is provided.
It was the brainchild of Mark Johnstone, an occupational therapist from St Luke’s Anglicare. He happened to mention one day to some clients that he had once rowed solo the length of the Murray. “Why don’t we do something like that?” one of them piped up. Mark thought it was so crazy, it just might work.
On November 22nd,2013, hundreds of people lined the banks of the Murray River at Noreuil Park in Albury to farewell the participants of the ‘River 2 Recovery’ journey as they embarked on their 225km journey to Mulwala. Over the next 11 days, the program participants took turns to row, liaise with media and provide on-the-ground support.
Last night, the 17 participants of the two year program were presented with their qualifications at a formal ceremony at Wodonga TAFE. There was also a much-anticipated screening of a short documentary film that some of the participants had produced through a series of ABC Open workshops. In addition to achieving qualifications in woodwork, many of the students also completed Certificate 1 in Transition Education, a course designed to help them to transfer into further education and employment.
Course coordinator and teacher, Bryan Winnett, is passionate about equity in education. “Even though they might be dealing with a mental illness, people should still have the opportunity to gain qualifications. It’s just a matter of the education providers being able to provide the right support and flexibility to enable that to happen.”
The Transition Education course was adapted by Bryan and his colleagues at Wodonga TAFE to suit students with a psychiatric disability. The course helped to provide workplace communication skills, personal development and an introduction to vocational opportunities. There was a synergy between Wodonga TAFE’s focus on providing equitable access to education and St Luke’s services, working as they do to support people to engage with meaningful activity, including vocational opportunities.
The River 2 Recovery program has been a success on a number of fronts. That includes its retention rate. The program started with 19 and ended with 17 – impressive figures for any two year TAFE course. A few students had to discontinue for health reasons, but others enrolled mid-way through.
The NSW Minister for Mental Health, Ken Humphries, was so impressed that he pledged seed funding to support the students to do more projects around the boats in the future, such as an ecotourism venture. Some of them are returning to TAFE to do further study this year, with a view to gaining the skills, including some business skills, to do just this.
The real power of the program is probably best illustrated by the qualitative results, through the kinds of anecdotes shared in the River to Recovery documentary film. It is a testament to the power of feeling part of a community, of sharing stories and of collaborating on a positive project with a common goal.
Dave Lehmann, one of the main carpenters of the boats said, “To come together, as group of like people that didn’t know each other, and to achieve something like this…it’s inspiring, it’s better than any medication.”
For Dave, who was one of four people who spoke on camera for the documentary film, there was also strength to be derived from sharing his story.
“Mental health has never been something to be talked about in my family other than to say, ‘Get over it!'”
Talking to others and gaining clarity over his own personal story was an important part of the healing process for Dave. “I’ve made a lot of wrong choices in my life but where I am now, I’m me! And I’m never going to lose that. And the one thing I always prayed for was to be free of all those binds. It’s opened my heart.”
Fellow participant Sebastien France is quick to acknowledge that a single course cannot solve all problems or heal all maladies. However he believes that it has provided a way of building resilience and connections for the future. “I know that there will be more times that I’ll struggle with mental health but I know I have these friendships and there is a community out there that can support me and also for me to support the community myself.”
The confidence and skills that Sebastien has gained through the program has already had a direct impact on his life. “I was in a very big severe depression…I tried going to TAFE courses but it was impossible for me to stay in class, I couldn’t cope.”
Sebastien was one of the main rowers on the journey. He is now working part-time in hospitality, volunteering and has plans for further study this year. Sebastien spent countless hours as the co-writer and editor on the ABC Open River 2 Recovery film. In a recent ABC Open guest post he wrote, “Working on this film has inspired me to study media at Albury TAFE this year. I didn’t have the confidence to do it before, but after this project, I feel like it’s become a real possibility for me.”
For Shane Cole, the program was transformative, physically and spiritually. He started going to the gym regularly to prepare for the physically demanding journey, resulting in significant weight loss. Shane had once worked as a registered nurse but a back injury compounded by traumatic life events and severe depression was debilitating. He had not left his house for four years prior to participating in the program, other than for medical appointments.
“At one of the lowest points, I didn’t really care if I was going to be in the world at all,” he recalled.
“Initially, it was hard to come through the door at TAFE. I have major trust issues and they have lessened off as I’ve trusted these people, I’ve told them my story and they haven’t judged me. That was the biggest surprise and gift.”
Jim Watson described his life as being “a big black mess” before getting involved with River 2 Recovery.
“I was just a bad drug addict, I was hopeless to myself,” he said.
Jim was also one of the main rowers and participated for the full two years of the program.
“I always stuff up everything I do, I used to anyway. [River 2 Recovery] has changed my way of thinking.” Like Shane, Jim also described the liberation of feeling like he was part of a community. “The people have been good to me…I’ve never been able to relate to people on a normal level before. And it’s pretty normal! It’s given me more confidence and more faith in people.”
All the participants agree that the key to the program’s success was the combination of flexible delivery, customised training and having ownership over it. Shane explained, “At TAFE, they could adjust their teaching to what level we were at on that particular day. And support workers from St Luke’s would participate in class, they’d help anyone having problems on the day.”
The students were responsible for all aspects of planning, including building and painting the boats, liaising with media, getting fit, organising the journey and fundraising for it through running events like trivia nights. They also used it as an opportunity to raise awareness in the community of mental health. They took turns to run a stand at local community markets, with one of the boats, and talked to complete strangers about the project and their own experiences.
Sebastien explained, “It was us in control of the project, in control of our lives, and feeling like together that we can really achieve anything.” He offered a metaphor by way of description: “It’s like reaching out for help and having someone reach back. They don’t pick us up from the ground, they provide a steadying hand while we get back up on our feet ourselves. I feel that really describes how this project is.”
According to Bryan Winnett, the Foundation Studies teacher and coordinator of the program, the individual-centred approach behind the project represents a radical change in culture when it comes to how society has historically dealt with people with disabilities. When Bryan started working in psychiatric services 30 years ago, nurses and ‘attendants’ still carried a bunch of keys. Long-term patients were regularly locked behind solid doors.
“Consumers were on the bottom rung in the decision-making process regarding treatment. Individualised plans were a new concept and the consumer voice in policy planning was very quiet, if not non-existent.”
In the program that Bryan runs, things are very different.
“Our students explore individual rights, the ability to be assertive, the compassion to care for each other and listen, and the strength to find a voice.” He believes that these are vital skills to equip people in their personal lives, as well as their future workplaces.
The Wodonga TAFE Foundation Studies course is one of the rare courses in the country that caters specifically for people with mental health challenges. Bryan has a clear message for other education providers.
“I think that if, as an educator, you’re serious about equity and if you’re already providing courses for people with learning disabilities and/or difficulties, then people with mental health issues shouldn’t just be an afterthought.”
Aside from the vocational skills and training, people engaging in further study can also reap therapeutic benefits from having a routine, structure and social interaction.
“For some people, the apparently simple things such as attending a class regularly on a weekly basis, engaging in conversation and adjusting to a new environment is enough to lift the veil somewhat on the often dark curtain that surrounds mental illness, even in the throes of recovery,” he said.
Bryan hopes that programs like River 2 Recovery could be a precedent and inspiration for other training programs. “We have a proven record of over 10 years in offering courses to people with mental health issues – and we’ve found that contrast to popular belief, they can cope with it and they can do exceptionally well.”
Participants from the River 2 Recovery program have produced blog posts, radio documentaries and the film, above, as part of a series of ABC Open Albury-Wodongaworkshops. They also created a WordPress blog ‘The Boat Project’ to describe and document their journey.
Working with students with mental illness
Staying the course: A guide to mental illness – Facilitator’s Guide
Department of Training and Workforce Development, Western Australia, 2012http://bit.ly/1S4XAer
TAFE students with a mental illness – disclosure?
This paper meets at the crossroads of personal experience and public policy. The personal is the experience of learning as described by five TAFE students with a mental illness.
The public policy context is the increased political pressure on Australia’s major vocational training providers to increase workforce participation of people with mental illness.
Contemporary research informs us that Vocational Education and Training students who disclose a mental illness are less likely to successfully complete the course in which they are enrolled than any other student cohort.
The exploratory qualitative research described in this paper aims to increase understanding of the lived experience of learning for the TAFE student with a mental illness.
A key finding concerned the students’ choice to not-disclose their mental illness and a belief that this non-disclosure aided the learning experience.
The role of disclosure of a mental illness in the vocational education and training sector is challenged by this small study.
*Copyright precludes including more information.
Who’s supporting us? TAFE staff perspectives on supporting students with mental illnesses
This report examines the perceptions of technical and further education (TAFE) staff in relation to supporting students with mental illnesses.
- A major issue for TAFE institutes is responding to the needs of students who do not disclose a mental illness. Mental health promotion needs to address this lack of disclosure.
- Staff felt that there was a lack of clarity about the extent of their roles in supporting students with mental illnesses. Staff acknowledge their responsibility to provide duty of care but agree that their roles should not cross over to actual provision of personal support.
- Staff require appropriate skills and collegiate support to respond confidently to the diverse needs of students with mental illnesses. This includes more opportunities for discussion and debriefing sessions with experienced staff.
- The vocational education and training (VET) sector should be concerned with education, not therapy. Staff felt that community health services see VET as a therapeutic option for their clients, rather than as education in its own right.
FREE FULL TEXT WORD: http://bit.ly/1PSGb4W