04:07pm Tuesday 22 October 2019

Australian first camp to tackle mental illness

Caroline Picton

An Australian first ‘Recovery Camp’ that simultaneously promotes healing for people with a mental illness while training the next generation of Australian health professionals will take place from 11-15 May.

The five-day therapeutic recreation camp, designed and run by a team from UOW and the University of Queensland, pairs people with a lived experience of serious and enduring mental illness, such as schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, with nursing, psychology, dietetics and exercise physiology students from UOW.

Professor Lorna Moxham, professor of Mental Health Nursing at UOW and the lead of the ‘Living Well, Longer’ challenge in the University’s Global Challenges Program, leads the Recovery Camp, which is in its third year.

She said the camp gives people with a serious mental illness access to a therapeutic experience that is community-based and recovery-oriented, valuing their lived experience and placing them in the driving seat.

“Recovery Camp is a unique project in Australia that specifically addresses a fundamental key to health practitioner training, and that’s to work with real people with varying forms of mental illness. For both people with a mental illness and university students it is a life changer,” she said.

“Recovery Camp is about learning what’s not in the textbooks. It deals with real issues, fears and dreams – we all have them. It develops essential life skills not only in training to become a health practitioner but to widen our views and perspectives towards mental health in general.”

When nursing student Caroline Picton (pictured above and below) attended the Recovery Camp in 2014, she had a five-year plan to become an accident and emergency nurse. However her experiences at the camp led her to change her plan completely.

“Before the camp, I had a five-year plan and was studying hard to achieve high grades in preparation to do so. However, my experiences made me realise at an intuitive level my skills and knowledge are better suited to a career in mental health nursing,” Caroline said.

“My five year plan is now to become a clinical nurse specialist working with people living with a mental illness.”

Caroline said she originally wanted to attend the camp because “it seemed like a fun way to gain the confidence to work with people who experience a mental illness,” but she soon found it to be the most valuable clinical placement she had ever attended.

“Very quickly, my misconceptions of people experiencing a mental illness were challenged and I learned to see beyond the symptoms and view the whole person. I was humbled and inspired by the openness, courage and resilience of people who are often stigmatised and marginalised by their diagnosis.”

Caroline Picton

Caroline is now a Registered Nurse working in mental health in Nowra and is doing her Honours at UOW. She will attend the camp again this year and will also be collecting data for her Honours research.

“I am returning this year to the place that changed my career path and will be documenting people’s experience of the camp,” Caroline said. 

“The research into this experience will inform mental health practice by providing insight into how outdoor recreation is perceived by people living with a mental illness and how it can benefit their recovery. It is an area that is often missed in research because it is regarded as a fun and lightweight topic but many people who have been unwell with a mental illness have not had as many opportunities to engage in fun with others in a natural environment and experience the healing benefits of being ‘light’.”

Caroline decided to pursue a Bachelor of Nursing at UOW’s Bega campus after 17 years working with people with intellectual disabilities, including people with autism.

“As a younger woman I had wanted to be a Registered Nurse but at the time I did not think I was clever enough to get the degree qualification,” she said.

“I am now very proud to be part of the nursing profession and it is my dream come true.”

“Nursing is not all about drips, drains and documentation. More often it’s about being with people when they are at their most vulnerable. I am mindful of that privilege. My work is confronting but very rewarding.”

30 people with a mental illness and 26 students will attend this year’s camp, which offers activities such as rock climbing, bush dancing, a flying fox, art and craft, and trivia in bushland near the north-western Sydney town of Windsor. The activities are the catalyst for one-to-one and group engagement.

Professor Moxham said the Camp has been so successful that other universities around Australia have contacted her to implement the program in their regions.

“We hope the success of the program puts mental health issues firmly on the radar of policy makers and government funding agencies. Given almost half of the total population will experience a mental health illness at some point in their lifetime, it should be a priority and should be funded accordingly.”

The Recovery Camp is supported by UOW’s Global Challenges Program, a major research initiative designed to address the complex problems facing the world through multidisciplinary research. ‘Living Well, Longer’ is one of the central challenges, focusing on maximising the mental and physical health of all Australians.

More information: globalchallenges.uow.edu.au

Media contact: Elise Pitt, Media & PR Officer, UOW, +61 2 4221 3079, +61 422 959 953

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