“The biggest step in the right direction for my mental health has been starting to volunteer…I don’t think our society gives enough value to volunteer work.”

By Eloise Swales, 2017 Youth Member for Bundamba

As someone who has severe mental health issues, one of the hardest things to believe is that your views matter, and that you can make a positive change. I believe that the biggest step in the right direction for my mental health has been starting to volunteer with headspace.

hs toowoomba
Nation-wide: headspace Toowoomba is one of over 90 centres across Australia

That said, I don’t think the message I’m spreading here is only for young people with mental health issues, rather, I think it’s important for all young people to find their passion, and working towards it is an essential part of a healthy life balance. I am approaching this from a mental health perspective, because that’s what my lived experience is but I know many ‘healthy’ people struggle with what their life means, and what their purpose is. I think the answer is being passionate about something, and for many people, part of being passionate about something is to be engaged in their community.

I don’t think our society gives enough value to volunteer work. Many people think “why do that, if I am not being paid?” but our society would grind to a halt without the work of volunteers, and I believe that it’s healthy and beneficial to make giving selflessly a part of your life. If we all thought about how we could improve life for each other, imagine what we could achieve! This isn’t to say you need to do something that you don’t enjoy or aren’t passionate about, but that you should think about what you are passionate about.

flood cleanup
Volunteers: Brisbane residents band together in the aftermath of the 2011 floods

Do you know your passion?
How can you join in that community, if there is one?
How can you make a community around it if there isn’t?
How can you use that to help others?

My journey with community engagement started with my participation in dialectical behavioural therapy group. I could write pages on this, but that’s a different story. I met a girl there that I thought was too cool to approach. She come in wearing hippy clothing and had the wildest stories. Beautiful wrap around skirts, bikini tops, bracelets all up her arms. She ended up becoming one of my closest friends, and she was (and is) my inspiration to be active in my community.

IDAHOT group with seqld volunteers
The headspace community: Eloise (far R) joins other headspace volunteers to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT)

I always thought that being active within your community was something that only people who had everything under control did. I really never tried anything new. I figured, “Why bother?”

This girl had multiple diagnoses.; borderline personality disorder (BPD), bipolar disorder, and anorexia to name just a few. But there she was, being active in her community, and not only doing it, but seeming to be better for it.

When I joined the group, I had difficulty answering a phone. At the end of the program, they wanted someone to talk about their experience, in Melbourne, in front of clinicians, administrative staff, and other young people from around Australia.

And I said yes. And I have been saying yes ever since.

hs day celebrations
Saying yes: Eloise (back R) waits to share her story at headspace day celebrations.

Of course, this has not cured myself or my friend. We still have our struggles, but in those moments where I don’t think I can take another breath, I think of the next event I have, my role in an upcoming project. I think of the people who have said I’ve made a mark in their lives.

I have been able to take this mastery, this confidence, this energy, and work on exciting, new things. As I said before, this isn’t a miracle cure and whilst I am the most stable I have ever been, my friend is currently in hospital. But even in hospital, she is inspirational. She acquired special leave so that she was able to take part in a trip to Wagga Wagga with a community group , and in sharing messages with her over the trip, I saw how much she got out of it.

I’ll leave you with some words from my friend, as she always puts it so well:

Getting nominated for Young Australian of the Year was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever achieved. During that time, I was in one of my darkest periods, battling anorexia and the roller coaster that is bipolar and BPD.

I felt like my hard work volunteering with headspace’s Youth Planning Advisory group (hYPA) had been recognised and I was so grateful for the opportunities I was given throughout this time. I believe the work of volunteers is seriously undervalued. Volunteers are the back bone of many organisations and without the work these volunteers do, many organisations would suffer.

Even though you may be unwell, try your best to stay involved with your community. Personally, it gives me a great sense of meaning and belonging, and your lived experience can help others immensely.