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Article by Jack Heath, Chief Executive Officer, SANE Australia
 

Whenever we find ourselves facing a crisis or going through a really difficult time, to feel part of a supportive community makes such an enormous difference. Sure, being part of a community doesn’t remove our problem but it can certainly reduce the burden and help put us on a path to recovery.

When it comes to mental health issues, community is incredibly important. Many of us can remember back to a time when a mental health issue first touched our lives and we felt incredibly alone. It could have been facing depression and being reluctant to seek help. It might have been a family member behaving in a disturbing way and us taking them to a mental health professional for the first time.

In all these situations, to know that you are not alone makes such an enormous difference.  That’s why at SANE Australia we have spent the past year working hard to build a national community for all Australians affected by mental illness. Using the power of the Internet, we’ve built the SANE Forums for carers and families as well as individuals with lived experience of mental illness.

Thanks to Federal Government support, we’ve been able to invest in the best technology available. Importantly, we travelled around the country and met with many individuals in big cities and small rural communities to make sure that we built something that meets their needs and is easy to access.  We’ve been at pains to ensure that we have a safe and supportive community so that, when they are ready, people can feel confident to join the conversation on an anonymous basis, share their story and find support.

The SANE Forums will shortly be launched by Health Minister Dutton but we’ve already seen powerful conversations taking place in the past few weeks the forums have been live. 

‘I’m feeling lost and seeking help … I felt relieved to find the forum, being able to interact with others that can relate to my situation takes some stress off my mind and I don’t feel so alone on this journey.’

When one person asks ‘How do you cope with being a carer for someone who doesn’t believe they need a carer?’ they immediately get a positive response ‘I felt like smiling with what you write …I can so identify with most things that your experiencing, from being a carer.’ And so a dialogue of hope and support takes off.

When another person volunteered ‘Saw my psychiatrist for the first time today!’ they quickly found support from the community ‘Well done, it takes a lot of nerve and courage to see a psychiatrist’ was the reply.

These are just a few snippets of the conversations already taking place on the SANE Forums.

One of the most powerful things is that we have built the SANE Forums in partnership with mental health organisations right around Australia including ARAFMI NSW, ARAFMI WA, Compassionate Friends Victoria, Eating Disorders Victoria, MIF NT, MIF NQ, MIND AUSTRALIA and Tandem. We have a growing list of organisations wanting to get involved in this genuine collaborative effort. 

Each of these organisations can now provide the people they help with another valuable source of support. Importantly, the people they help access the conversation through their existing websites so it strengthens links at a more local level. At the same time, because all these organisations plug into a bigger national conversation there are always lots of interesting exchanges taking place. This provides for a more dynamic, diverse and supportive community all round.

The SANE Forums can connect with people that no one has been able to reach before.  Despite all the significant and welcome investment Governments have made in recent years the majority of people living with a mental illness are not currently able to access professional help.  The SANE Forums can help inform people about the supports out there in an anonymous way and get them on the path to recovery. 

We also know that if we get more Australians to seek help, we need to be savvy in delivering support in cost effective and efficient ways. Late help is always expensive help and so the SANE Forums can reduce budgetary costs by encouraging people to seek help early on. 

This is part of a worldwide trend as mental health communities around the globe are increasingly tapping into the internet and new technologies and platforms, to more effectively communicate with each other, provide information and support, and identify new ways of designing and delivering treatment of mental health issues and illnesses.   As the Mental Health Commission of Canada has suggested, the time is now for this paradigm shift to happen. 

A major study by the Pew Research Center corroborated anecdotal evidence that many people – especially those living with chronic or rare diseases – value online connections to supplement professional medical advice.   It found that almost 1 in 4 internet users living with chronic conditions have looked online for someone with similar health conditions. It also reported that more than 1 in 4 internet users caring for a loved one say they have looked online for someone with similar health concerns. A recent Wesley Report  looking at support for carers, recommended peer-support networks would be ‘of comfort and benefit to otherwise isolated and potentially vulnerable carers’. 

The importance of peer-to-peer networks to participants shouldn’t be underestimated. Susan Stewart Loane, from Macquarie University has researched the ‘consumer value of online health communities.’   She says forum participants may experience significant benefits such as increased confidence and wellbeing in addition to the satisfaction that comes from helping others. What’s not to like? 

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The Hon Peter Dutton MP will officially launch the SANE Forums at Parliament House Canberra on Wednesday 27 August 2014. There will also be a launch at the TheMHS conference in Perth on Thursday 28 August.

For more information related to the SANE Forums, please contact SANE’s Online Community Manager, Nicole Thomas nicole.thomas@sane.org

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Article contributed to the newsletter Perspectives - August 2014. Please note that this article is from an individual contributor and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mental Health Australia

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consumers and carers, Newsletter, perspectives, mental illness