Carers Week during Mental Health Month highlights the importance of those who care for family and friends living with mental illness

SHE CARES: One Door carer advocate Isabelle Devos looks after mental health carers from Uralla to Tenterfield
SHE CARES: One Door carer advocate Isabelle Devos looks after mental health carers from Uralla to Tenterfield

Looking after someone living with mental illness can certainly take its toll, and the One Door carer advocate for our region has first-hand experience.

Isabelle Devos grew up in Canada as the eldest of five children whose father was bipolar and swung between periods of energetic mania and lethargic depression.

"He was an award-winning languages teacher who was always a bit eccentric, and then he got a diagnosed in his early 30's after a particularly strong manic episode and then a strong depressive episode," Ms Devos said.

"As I was the eldest I was the person my mum leaned on the most to help.

"Dad managed to have a job most of the time but he retired early because as he got older, and the medications weren't working as well, his condition became more difficult to manage."

Family life was interesting according to Ms Devos and she says her father had a lot of energy and great ideas.

"He was a really fun person most of the time when he took his medication, but he never admitted to having bipolar even though he was grateful for the medication and did take it here and there," she said.

"When he didn't take it (and he was suffering a manic episode) my mum would have to make sure he didn't do things like spend all the family money or organise some wild family adventure - or she would have to cancel it if he did."

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Ms Devos says her father died suddenly six years ago, and although her mother thought maybe as he got older he would get calmer, he never did.

"My mother hoped eventually the right mix of medication would kick in because his really good self was this very caring, lovely, adventurous, fun guy but it would go too far one way or the other," she said.

"Sometimes as people with mental illness get older the medication that has worked well for them previously starts to affect them differently."

And because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, her mother never had the benefit of any support outside the immediate family Ms Devos says.

"We had to keep it secret or he would have lost his job," she said.

We couldn't talk about it to anyone.

Even though she had an unusual childhood, Ms Devos says it did give her a comfort level in helping to support friends when they were going through mental health issues.

"That was really a good skill to have because going through your teens and early 20's you can come across quite a few people going through mental health concerns and I was never nervous about what to do when people were having a tough time," she said.

"I am an artist but I try not to make my art something I have to live from financially and I've always found permanent part-time work.

"When I moved here about ten years ago, there was a position advertised in the paper that piqued my interest because you had to have lived experience of being a carer for a family member.

"I didn't realise that my whole life of having to help my father gave me the ability to be trained on the job to help people who are going through the same experience.

"Having to help a parent with serious mental illness my whole life ( and support his mental health issues his whole life) gave me the ability to get work and have an extra understanding of what mental health carers are going through."

One Door Carer Services is a community managed charitable organisation and the Armidale office was established 12 years ago to provide information, education, advocacy, and support, through the Family and Carer Mental Health Program (FCMHP) across the region.

Ms Devos gives individual support services as well as education and training for carers and families of someone living with mental illness in towns along the New England Highway from Uralla to Armidale, Glen Innes and Tenterfield.

"The services are free to carers and provide emotional support, group workshops (both face to face and online), support groups (face to face and online), information, resources, referrals and advocacy," she said.

"We can also provide support for young carers aged between 8 and 25 years who may be impacted by a sibling, or parent, or grandparents' mental health condition.

"We help them understand the nature of this type of health condition and the emotions surrounding a diagnosis."

Ms Devos said a family member didn't need to be diagnosed for someone to contact her and self-referrals are fine.

And even if they don't seek support, one of the most important things for carers to do for themselves is to take some time out - even if it is only for 15 minutes.

"When you're looking after a family member who is living with a mental illness, it can take its toll on your own health, wellbeing and life goals," she said.

"Ensuring that you get the support and respite you need so you can be the best version of yourself for your loved one is paramount.

"A lot of people can't get away for a big break but just finding those mini-breaks and getting 15 minutes to yourself twice a day can help.

"Either go out for a walk or go into a room and shut the door and watch tv or read a magazine or just get into your car and drive within the town limits to get a coffee.

"And try to find one person that you can confide in with whom you can share your concerns confidentiality."

There is also a long-standing Support Group for Mental Health Carers in Armidale.

"It was started by two women who needed support and reached out to others about 25 years ago," Ms Devos said.

"We get together monthly to meet socially and discuss news in the mental health sector, finding what works and what doesn't and knowing that each member of the group has something in common with each other and understands the particular issues that can be part of the caring role.

"It helps to know you are not alone."

October is Mental Health Month and within that is National Carers Week from October 11 to 17.

"It is important we acknowledge the unpaid work that so many family carers do to help others," Ms Devos said.

For more information go to the One Door website or call Ms Devos on 6772 3211