I recently wound up two years of working with Orygen, the National Centre for Excellence in Youth Mental Health. I sat on the Orygen Youth Research Council, one of two councils of young people with a lived experience of mental ill-health committed to improving the quality of mental health services and research in Australia.
We were the first youth Councils at Orygen, and as a result, we almost had a standing start (but for the tireless energy of Jacqui Faliszewski, Magenta Simmons and the other youth participation diehards). Sometimes change by committee can feel frustrating when you’re in it, but when I look back at what we achieved, it was a lot!
The culture change within the organisation from then to now is huge, and can be seen in tangible changes like the introduction of young people on the Research Review Committee, the development of the internship and Live it Speak it programs and the urgency with which many researchers seek out the opinions of young people to inform their work, not just as subjects but as shapers of their projects.
And intangibly, the way that researchers were engaging with us changed over time. Increasingly, they realised we were not just ‘the young people’ but capable people with research skills, and a range of interests, experiences and points of view.
I often write about why it’s valuable for organisations to learn from the lived experience of people with mental health because it’s good for the organisations itself – and I clearly think it is! – but this reflection is really about what Orygen meant to me. And without a doubt, working with Orygen has changed my life.
I’ve gained friends from across the country, and world. They have incredible stories of strength and resilience, and a commitment to making the world a better place. Also they are all hilarious.
I’ve gained colleagues who have helped me to understand my own mental ill-health, how to interact with that amorphous thing we call ‘the system’ and how to use my experiences to improve treatments, programs and services.
I’ve gained knowledge – so much knowledge – about how things work, how things don’t work, and how things could work.
I’ve gained experiences, from sharing my story on radio to shaping real policy to travelling halfway round the world to a conference. And I’ll never forget the moment at that conference when I realised that ‘this was it’ – using my lived experience to make policy better was what I was ‘meant to be’ doing.
Organisations like Orygen claim to be about improving the lives of young people. As an organisation, you can’t do that if you are only ever doing things ‘to’ young people. You have to be doing things with them. Enabling them to gain friends, knowledge and experiences that empower them to find out who they really are. That’s what Orygen has done for me.
In August 2015, I was in a weird place. I had just ended a long-term relationship which had not been healthy for me. I loved my job, but professionally, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do into the future. I had been living in Australia for four years, and while I did have friends here, I still felt like my life was mostly in the UK where I had grown up.
But in the last two years, my life has changed completely. I have discovered a sense of self through my involvement in youth mental health participation that has seeped beyond my mental health advocacy. My confidence is not unshakeable – I don’t think it ever will be. But it is stronger at it’s core, and a key reason for that is my involvement with Orygen.
And of course, a huge thank you goes to Jacqui Faliszewski, Magenta Simmons and all my fellow ex-YACers and YRCers.