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Life beyond the diagnosis.

Updated: May 25, 2022

Schizophrenia awareness week is about challenging the stigma associated with one of the most sensationalised and misunderstood mental illnesses. It is a complex illness that impacts the lives of 1 in 100 Australians. Quite often sufferers of schizophrenia are portrayed as dangerous, unhinged or violent, an insulting stereotype that limits kind-hearted and good people to their diagnosis. We spoke to Samuel Walker, a gentle and compassionate man from Metro North Health in a mental health de-escalation capacity as a peer worker, in the Safe Space.

He provides a non-judgemental environment for patients in distress—often they come straight from the Emergency Room. Samuel sits with them, discusses their concerns but, most importantly, he also demonstrates that recovery is possible. You see, Samuel has a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. He lives with schizophrenia. He has learnt, how, to live with his illness and he is passionate about helping people similarly afflicted come to terms with their condition and to live life to the full. He now works at the same hospital, despite being told he will never have a solid job due to his diagnosis. Through his work, he has “never been so happy to prove people wrong.”

Samuel’s journey began when he was 18, shortly after the death of a close friend and the suicide of the friend’s brother. Auditory hallucinations or ‘voices’ blamed him for the deaths and told him that he needed to harm himself and that “he didn’t deserve to live”. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia six months after his first admission to hospital. It took many years to conquer the ‘voices’ so that his hallucinations wouldn’t destroy his daily life.

“My recovery journey started in hospital. It started by meeting other patients with similar experiences and amazing clinical staff who not only told me but showed me, sometimes with their own experiences, to know recovery is not only possible, but probable.”

The voices haven’t left him, as is the nature of the chronic illness, but he has developed strategies so they don’t hinder his ability to undertake daily tasks. One of the strategies involves constantly having noise in the background, whether it be the news or a podcast, that drown out intrusive hallucinations. Following his last admission in 2016, Samuel applied for a job as a support worker in the Early Psychosis Team for Queensland Health. He predominately works in Safe Space; here, patients are made to feel understood and given tangible hope of recovery; so, instead of hospitalisation, they often return home, eager to prioritise recovery. Samuel believes strongly that, “those simple connections and heartfelt conversations are what can turn a horrible day into something filled with insight and positive vulnerability.” People who have experienced schizophrenia and have learnt to manage it are well-placed to assist others in their rehabilitation. He, therefore, believes that mental health workers with lived-experience of mental illness have much to contribute.

Sam is confident that progress in the mental health area will happen when we, “ see more lived experience workers having the same opportunities that I have had …. in sharing their experiences … [and thereby helping and displaying] …. the possibilities [of rehabilitation to patients] … dealing with mental health challenges”. He noted that patients can “put their walls up” when they are solely working with clinicians who may not be able to fully empathise with their experience. Through his treatment process, he was shocked to see some clinicians ‘buy into’ the stigma associated with schizophrenia and, therefore, have preconceived beliefs that he could be violent or dangerous. “Anyone who has taken the time to get to know me and talk to me knows that I’m not dangerous or aggressive and that I have a gentle nature”, Sam remarked.

Lived-experience support workers allow for more open discourse that helps build rapport quickly and aids clinical staff in finding the root concerns and issues. Sam hopes to see more training opportunities for former patients so they can “use their own stories as well as skills to stabilise and de-escalate people in distress”.

Samuel echoes the values of Woven Threads in his work: he strongly believes that sharing stories that find a moment of hope has the potential to transform lives and create social change.

Samuel also believes that to improve our mental health, it is essential that, every day, we set small, achievable goals for ourselves—goals as small as getting a good night’s sleep and eating well. Focusing on the smaller goals rather than the daunting future makes each day more ‘do-able’. Samuel says, “I will always strive to give back in mental health and work to change the direction that someone is headed by learning from my experiences and my mistakes”. And remember:

“There are no life sentences in mental health, only opportunities to prove negative statements wrong.”

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