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August 14, 2022

Free community mental health symposium for Ballina

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Mental health is a growing issue on the Northern Rivers and across Australia. Pexels.

The Rotary Club of Ballina on Richmond is organising a major symposium on 11 August with a focus on youth mental health issues in the Northern Rivers. The timing of the free event at Ballina RSL couldn’t be better, as COVID-related isolation and flooding disasters continue to take their toll on the community’s mental health.

Dave Harmon from Rotary is the main organiser. He told The Echo the event was coming together well, after some unavoidable delays. ‘Yes, we were going to run this last year. And then the COVID lockdowns happened. So we postponed it. As it turned out, that was probably a blessing in disguise,’ he said.

Dave Harmon from Ballina Rotary at an anti-DV event. Photo David Lowe.

‘Because of the devastating floods in February, our communities now need mental health support more than ever.

‘Speaking personally, we’re living in a house with no walls, and a concrete floor, and I know what it’s doing to me.’

Although the event has a particular focus on youth (16-24 year olds face the highest rates of mental ill-health, according to the Bureau of Statistics), Mr Harmon says the free symposium is open to everyone as the region faces the ‘shadow pandemic’ of mental health.

‘We took this on to get something happening,’ he said.

High-powered speakers

The symposium will allow attendees to hear from experts in the field, and to ask questions. Speaker Professor Michael Sawyer OAM’s specialty is adolescent psychiatry, with Adelaide University.

Emeritus Professor Michael Sawyer OAM. University of Adelaide.

‘He’s worked for the Department of Paediatrics and has been Associate Dean doing research in the Faculty of Health Sciences there,’ said Mr Harmon.

‘He ‘s a high calibre guy. He’ll give an overview of the state of mental health in Australia, explain what’s going on.’

‘He’d be one of the most qualified experienced people In Australia as far as mental health with youth go. Michael is coming to us from Adelaide.’

Also on the bill is local senior psychologist Katie Burgess. ‘Yes, she was with Northern Rivers Community Gateway in Lismore,’ said Mr Harmon. ‘Recently she’s started up her own business.

Registered psychologist Katie Burgess. Photo supplied.

‘Katie specialises in child and adolescent mental health. She’s going to give a case study of someone that’s presented and the support that was given and how that person was treated, just to give an idea of what sort of support and treatments are available.

‘So Katie’s more hands-on. She’ll give an overview of what sort of help is available in terms of psychologists and counselling.

But wait, there’s more

In addition to what’s happening in the main auditorium at Ballina RSL, there will be a breakout room where attendees will be able to talk to people and organisations who are active in mental health support locally.

‘We’re going to have Aimee McNeill, one of the directors of Healthy Northcoast, the government agency. She’ll be in the breakout room,’ said Mr Harmon.

‘Also Fran Pidcock from The Buttery. She’ll talk about drugs and alcohol and how that contributes to mental health. It can be a vicious circle, where you can have bad mental health before you hit the drugs or you can hit the drugs and then get bad mental health. So they have programs to help with that.

‘Headspace from Lismore will also be there,’ he said. ‘Also CASPA and Batyr‘. Batyr describes itself as a batyr is a ‘for purpose’ preventative mental health organisation, created and driven by young people, for young people.

‘They’re an educational not for profit,’ said Mr Harmon. ‘ They run educational programs for youth and teachers and parents, so they’re going to be in the breakout room as well.’

Jackson Connellan from Healthy Minds Club. Photo David Lowe.

Also involved in the symposium are local legends the Healthy Minds Club. Jackson Connellan from the group is going to be in the breakout room.

‘Yeah, Jackson is a champ,’ said Dave Harmon.

He added that the Northern Rivers Suicide Prevention and Awareness Group would also be in the breakout room on the night.

Why it’s important

Dave Harmon says, ‘We need to break down the stigma and encourage conversation about mental ill health. As we know, two in five adults experience mental health conditions in their lifetime, and one in four young people.

‘There’s so much more of it out there than what we realised. So let’s just have the conversation. And let our community know what support is available.’

Mr Harmon says plan is for the symposium to be the start of something bigger, with a follow-up event next year already being discussed.

He said the mental health figures for the Northern Rivers in particular were really concerning, with the worst probably yet to come. ‘We’re really concerned that it’s the next two and three years after these floods that we’re going to see the spike. So we want to get in there early and encourage the conversation.’

How to book

The event is free, but Dave Harmon is asking people to book if possible, to assist with catering (there will be free tea and coffee).

It’s easy to organise a free ticket from the link on the Ballina Rotary website, via computer or phone. For any questions, you can ring Dave directly on 0401 956 996.

Mental ill-health can be an isolating, frightening experience. Pexels.

And what would he say to people who are already struggling with major mental health challenges, and would like to see less talk and more action?

‘I think the conversation has to start somewhere,’ said Mr Harmon.

‘This is just the first little step. On the night, we’re going to have the federal government arm of mental health care, and all the different agencies that that work in this space.

‘This is the first time an event like this has ever been run in northern NSW, so I think it’s important that people come along and be vocal and be heard. Questions can be asked. People will be able to text questions throughout the night too.

‘Let’s start the conversation, and be vocal about it. And then let’s put the pressure back on state and federal government to say, hey, the outcome from a night like this was this. Here are the concerns that were raised.’

With the big room booked at Ballina RSL, and the generous support of many backers who have come to the party so far, the organisers are hoping for a big crowd to attend the free mental health symposium. Everyone is welcome.

The event will run from 5pm until 8.30pm on Thursday 11 August, at Ballina RSL.

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