Google ‘mental health’ and you’ll be met with pages of websites offering descriptions of mental illnesses and links to traditional mental health services. One thing you won’t find is a link to community radio stations. It’s not the first thing that springs to mind, but it should be.
Community radio has all the elements that contribute to a persons’ mental wellbeing. Its community focus and desire to cater to diverse groups makes it a place where everyone is welcome. By creating a support network and addressing specific community issues, community radio can help people overcome or manage mental health problems.
About 11 per cent of the population suffer from mental illness. It’s a sizeable number but there’s still serious stigma around the issue. The Victorian Government says the community’s attitude is still the biggest hurdle people with mental health issues face. Community radio stations across Australia are trying to reverse this stigma and create attitudinal change. Specialised programs are aimed at educating the public about mental illness and, more importantly, people affected by mental illness often volunteer at these stations.
If you walked into most workplaces and, on the first day, told everyone that you suffered from depression, you’d probably get some embarrassed looks and a lot of people staring at the floor. This isn’t the case at 4ZzZ community radio in Brisbane. Nicki, who started volunteering at 4ZzZ about five years ago after moving up from Melbourne, has clinical depression and an anxiety disorder. It isn’t her first stint in community radio and her previous experience helped her overcome some of the initial barriers to her involvement.
Nicki says the diversity of community radio made 4ZzZ accessible. ‘In an alternative network like this, there’s a different understanding and acceptance of what mental illness is than in other parts of the community.’ She has forge strong friendships, despite her anxieties, but concedes it hasn’t been easy. ‘I have a lot of trouble being around people so nearly every week I actually have to make myself come [to 4ZzZ]. I have a lot of anxiety around having conversations with people, I often feel that I say terrible or derogatory things, and I have a lot of anxiety about the things that go on in my head.’
Nicki’s involvement at the station means she’s forced to deal with and overcome her anxieties on a weekly basis. She believes her role at 4ZzZ is important. It’s helped build her sense of self-worth and this makes it all worthwhile. She isn’t alone either. A study from Community Volunteering London found that 90 per cent of people who volunteer have an enhanced feeling of self-worth and success. It also found that volunteering helps people with mental illness make a foray into the workforce.
Dave Turo-Shields is an adjunct faculty member for Indiana University School of Social Work who has written extensively on dealing with depression. He says it’s important to participate in activities that increase your self-esteem and allow your skills to shine through. Community radio provides opportunities to do this by finding jobs to suit people’s capabilities.
Garry Slik is the manager at Wide Bay Volunteers, located north of Brisbane. It’s an organisation that places people in volunteer positions within the community. He says, ‘for those with mental illness [volunteering] provides them with an opportunity to gain self-confidence, develop some sort of routine, develop relationships with others, and prove to themselves that they can do it.’
Garry notes that some community organisations view taking on volunteers with mental health issues as a daunting task. At the end of the day, the mental and physical wellbeing of all the volunteers has to come first, and sometimes people are turned away because of the negative impact they’re having on others. Unlike corporate workplaces, community organisations can’t afford to provide help for volunteers with mental illnesses and little outside support is offered.
Fortunately, organisations such as 4ZzZ have the courage to break away from the norm and open themselves up to everyone. The positive effect volunteering has on mental health is invaluable, and for that, 4ZzZ and other community organisations should be recognised and applauded. However, the support network that community radio provides still hasn’t been acknowledged.
This opinion piece, exploring issues relating to mental health and wellbeing, was commissioned by ActNow as part of Margins 2 Mainstream: 5th World Conference on the Promotion of Mental Health and the Prevention of Mental and Behavioural Disorders. We are grateful for the support of VicHealth and the Victorian Government in undertaking this initiative.
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