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Using lived experience to help others with mental illness

Paul Fagan is using his own experience recovering from mental health issues and substance abuse to help mental health clients at Peninsula Health.

“The terminology of peer worker is you’ve got lived experience,” explains Paul, who has worked in the Psychiatric Assessment and Planning Unit at Frankston Hospital as an Alcohol and Drug Peer Worker for the last few months.

“I had mental health issues that I had to deal with which led to the substance abuse. I put in many, many, hours mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually to heal. Now my life holistically is very harmonious and healthy.”

Paul says having lived experience helps him be able to engage with clients on a deeper level.

“It creates a very therapeutic relationship and that in itself is very powerful and that’s where the job satisfaction comes in.”

“It sort of ceases to become a job in one aspect because it’s two people engaging in relation to each other’s understanding of shared experiences. Clients respond really well to that – they can feel the compassion from you towards them.”

Paul is also a qualified counsellor and has also done some youth work, but before that he used to work in the construction industry.  

“I’m a qualified tradesman in steel fabrication and welding but that job just left me feeling empty,” explains Paul.

“I felt that I had more to offer to this world so to cut a long story short I decided to study a diploma of counselling.”

“I did the course and was nominated for the Student of the Year Award – that was a pretty good feeling when I was 44-years-old and it was such a different field to building and construction.”

Helping others is where Paul’s passion is. His role at Peninsula Health goes beyond just doing screening and assessments for Drug and Alcohol.

“Myself and the other peer worker are always walking around just checking in with people, having a chat, seeing how they are going. We have a very easy to approach attitude as well, we’re here to engage on any level that’s required for a person,” says Paul.

It’s currently Mental Health Week, which aims to raise awareness of mental illness and reduce stigma.

Paul says he is working to reduce stigma around mental illness through education and his role as a peer worker.

“I can use my personal lived experience and who I am as a person to advocate for and hopefully transcend the stigma as much as I can,” says Paul.

“To varying degrees people have mental health issues from anxiety to depression and one of the hardest things people feel is shame.”

“I’m there to say to someone that it’s ok that you are having a bad day – I’ve actually gone through it.”

“Straight away that shame is quickly alleviated and you’re a beacon of hope or light at the end of the tunnel for some people. I can actually say look at me now, I had quite substantial issues with substance abuse and overcame it and my life is pretty sound now.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental illness, you can contact Peninsula Health’s Mental Health Triage Service 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 1300 792 977. 
You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Jessica Mills