Smashing The Stigma

SOCIAL WORK: Dedicated students helped bring the conference to JCU

.     A conference to be held at JCU this Friday, October 5, aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.

COALITION: Louise Masters worked with Catherine Ouma, Kathleen Bates and Shinila Varghese to organise the conference

By Hailey Renault

The Let’s Talk About Mental Health conference will bring social work students, community service providers, carers and patients together in important discussions about mental health.

JCU Master of Social Work (Practising Qualified) Louise Masters was the main organiser behind the conference.

“We have a number of students presenting from JCU Townsville on a range of mental health issues like domestic violence, disabilities, and mental health in the Cultural and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) community,” she said.

“We decided to engage with our community through this conference, and we hope it will not only help students, but people in the wider JCU community.”

SOCIAL WORK: Dedicated students helped bring the conference to JCU

Big names, big issue

Students behind the Let’s Talk About Mental Health conference attracted some big names to champion their cause.

The idea for a conference to get people talking about mental health issues, designed by social work students, caught the attention of JCU Vice Chancellor Professor Sandra Harding and Toowoomba MP Claire Moore.

Although Professor Harding is unable to attend the conference herself, she said her role was to encourage participation in the lead-up to the student-run event.

“I wanted to support the initiative and the energy of JCU students who have put this together – I take my hat off to them,” she said.

“Mental health issues are all too often not discussed yet we know depression, bipolar disorders and many other mental health issues are real, and part of the lived experience of so many people in our community.”

Professor Harding said the event needs to discuss issues in people managing a mental illness as well as their friends and families.

“We need to be more open, more transparent and more supportive of people in both categories,” she said.

Queensland senator and Toowoomba MP Claire Moore will be the keynote speaker at the student-run conference.

Senator Moore said working alongside social workers on the front-line made her realise what they come up against on a daily basis.

“We all know the horrors of mental health in our community – we isolate it and almost demonise it,” she said.

“This is a well used example, but if someone has a broken leg we understand they are in pain and are concerned and sympathetic.

“But if it’s someone with mental illness, we aren’t as accepting of it and not at ease, and I think that is driven by fear.”

Senator Moore said being aware of mental illness in the community was the first step to addressing the stigma.

“The statistics say there isn’t a family that would be immune from it,” she said.

“It could be depression or loss, or issues of reactions to bullying and body image, all the way through to schizophrenia and identified mental health issues.

“The core part of social work is helping people know what is available to them – they really are the gel of the community and connect people with their services.”

New experiences for students

Fourth year social work student Catherine Ouma said planning the conference was an exciting and challenging experience.

“To mix the school agenda and your own personal agenda is difficult, and we had to find that balance,” she said.

“As a student I think it’s a great opportunity to develop your public self away from a student environment.”

Ms Ouma said she wanted to bring out the idea that mental health isn’t just about the people who are diagnosed with a condition.

“Mental health has many faces – it can be the businessman sitting behind a desk, the waitress in the restaurant serving a meal, or the child in the playground,” she said.

“We need to all be able to talk about mental health without the stigma that is often attached when discussing mental illnesses.”

The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), the Mental Illness Fellowship (MIF) and other community organisations took a role in supporting the development of this event.

Student volunteer Shinila Varghese from India said one of her aims for the conference was involving the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) community.

“I really wanted to expose their experiences of mental health and raise their voices in a debate where they’re not often heard from,” she said.

The Let’s Talk About Mental Heath Conference is free to attend and will run on Friday October 5, from 8:30 to 12:30, at the Eddi Koki Mabo library.