Employment Opportunity For People With A Mental Health Issue: “Why Not A Peer Worker?”

Tue Oct 20, 2015

One of Australia’s largest mental health service providers, RichmondPRA, has launched an unprecedented employment program to open up career paths for people with mental health issues, based on evidence of the effectiveness of peer workers in engaging and supporting people who access mental health services.

Sponsored by RichmondPRA CEO Pamela Rutledge and led by General Manager Inclusion and NSW Deputy Mental Health Commissioner Fay Jackson, the “Why Not A Peer Worker?” initiative places a stronger onus on service Managers to employ people who are able to draw on their own story of living with a mental health issue in front-line service delivery.

As the program name suggests, when a front-line vacancy occurs, the relevant Manager will ask “Why Not a Peer Worker?”

The strategy is part of RichmondPRA’s philosophy of employing people with a mental health issue across the organisation and takes this approach to a whole new level. About half of the organisation’s 640 current staff have a lived experience and RichmondPRA intends to lift that figure higher in coming years.

RichmondPRA has already employed nearly 100 peer workers across a range of mental health, community support and employment services in the early stages of the program, with a number of those positions being created in the Newcastle area, where services are expanding to people receiving NDIS packages of support.

Peer worker applicants must be able to demonstrate an ability to use their own story purposefully to assist people accessing RichmondPRA services in their mental health recovery journey. They work as part of a multidisciplinary team delivering a range of residential, employment and community services and are expected to undertake accredited training to acquire a Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work.

It’s anticipated that the initial peer worker employment will often result in staff forging new careers not only within RichmondPRA but gradually in other workplaces, with many working their way up to management positions.

The program is in response to formal research and strong anecdotal evidence showing that people with mental health issues are far more likely to trust, relate to and respond to someone who has their own experience of a mental health issue - a peer worker - as opposed to staff without mental health histories.

This boosts the chances of those in need of help embarking on a recovery journey and enjoying independent and meaningful lives in the community.

Information strongly indicates that clients supported by peer workers are far less likely to resort to drug and alcohol abuse and far less likely to require hospitalisation, which presents enormous social and cost benefits.

Ms Jackson – who has lived for many years with her own mental health issues – said the initiative was a unique opportunity for anyone with a lived experience who might be looking for a career change or opportunity.

“Having a mental health issue is now a resume drawcard,” Ms Jackson said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a successful career now or unqualified and unemployed.

“If you’ve had mental health issues, have a professional and compassionate disposition and are willing to undergo training and use your own experiences to help others you’re a strong candidate to forge a career as a peer worker.

“I know first-hand how thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding this can be and know that so many others will feel the same way once they’ve come forward.”

Ms Jackson emphasised the broad social and financial benefits from creating employment opportunities for peer workers.

“Research shows that every dollar spent on a peer worker saves about four dollars that would be spent providing treatment in clinical settings,” Ms Jackson said.

“Peer work support in the community is often simpler yet far more effective than hospitals and institutions which can be isolating and stigmatising.

“It’s also clear that people in the company of peer workers are far more likely to move away from alcohol and drug use, enjoy better emotional and physical health and re-connect with the community – particularly through education and employment opportunities.

“That’s why peer workers are so invaluable. Through their own experiences they can make a unique connection with those they are helping and draw on their experiences to make recovery journeys easier.”

RichmondPRA CEO Pam Rutledge said the ripple effects and benefits of the program would be significant.

“This takes RichmondPRA’s philosophy of employing people with a mental health issue to a whole new level,” Ms Rutledge said.

“On average peer workers make up only about three percent of the overall mental health workforce, a figure that we hope to boost exponentially with this program.

“If we can influence a spike in peer worker employment through this program it’s highly likely that the benefits will be felt across the mental health sector – more so if other organisation follow RichmondPRA’s lead.”

RichmondPRA is a not-for-profit organisation providing recovery focussed support programs, accommodation and hope for people with mental health issues in New South Wales and Queensland. Advocating communitybased assistance, it is a foremost mental health support provider that has been in operation for nearly 60 years.

Media enquiries: Matthew Watson, 0417 691 884.