A win for Carla McEnery is a win for the community. The provisional psychologist and PhD candidate at Swinburne recently won a prize in the university’s ﬁrst online Ideas Jam to help improve the way we live.
Her idea? To launch a program to train and support family and friends who are looking after someone with mental illness.
“We see family members dropping off or picking up the individuals who come to our Swinburne Psychology Clinic and I started asking ‘who is looking after these people?’,” Ms McEnery says.
“The experience can be devastating for family members. And there is good research to suggest that if you extend services to family members, it can improve the individual’s long-term recovery.”
The clinic is Australia’s largest student-led psychology centre and has been running for more than 20 years. With its support, Ms McEnery is developing a group program that will be launched in mid-2017.
Her focus is to support family members and carers of individuals with schizophrenia-related conditions. “We require more programs in Victoria that cater for that niche,” she says.
“There are still so many misconceptions and shame around schizophrenia and so much work needs to be done around that.”
Ms McEnery has been a leader throughout her career. She was soaring in the corporate world in her native Ireland when she decided to switch to psychology.
Her main impetus, she says, was a family member’s experience with mental ill health and wanting “to do something meaningful with my life”.
“I saw the process of assessment and stigmatisation of being labelled with a mental illness and I saw how that affected his identity and my wider family members,” she says.
Ms McEnery enrolled in a Bachelor of Psychological Science at La Trobe University and won several academic awards before scoring ﬁrst-class honours.
Any university would have snapped her up at that stage. She chose Swinburne for its “unique capacity for making bridges between research and the extended community, for making a social impact”.
Her idea has already caused ripples, here and overseas. “The day after I won, I got so many private messages from people that I never knew had loved ones who experienced mental ill health,” she says.
“Communication is half of it. It can be difficult to share your story because of shame or stigmatisation. Just offering the service has been enough for people to open up.
“Even people in Ireland felt they could tell me about their very personal issues, the struggles of feeling powerless.
“A lot of the time people are not given the tools to cope. So a good part of the therapy will be sharing lived experiences. That will be incredibly important.”