World mental health month: The research enabling people to live well, longer

World mental health month: The research enabling people to live well, longer

October marks Mental Health Month, a month that is dedicated to global mental health education, awareness and advocacy. 1 in 5 Australians are affected by mental illness, but many fail to seek the help they need out of fear of judgement or stigma.

The UOW Global Challenges Living Well, Longer challenge is focused on improving the lives of people with lived experience of mental illness and the lives of older Australians. Connecting experts from a range of fields and disciplines, this challenge area aims to understand and address mental health, therapeutic and personal recovery and ageing and dementia.

From running recovery camps, to focusing on men’s mental health through partnerships with Movember, these Global Challenges programs are helping make a difference in the lives of many Australians with lived experience of mental illness. Here’s an inside look at what some of the projects have recently been up to.

Focusing on strengths and challenges, not illness: Recovery Camp

Recovery Camp is a person-centred, recovery-focused initiative using a unique model: bringing together individuals with lived experience of mental illness and students/future health professionals to participate in a five-day therapeutic recreation camp in an Australian nature setting.

Since its inception in 2013, more than 550 university students have gained over 60,000 hours of clinical mental health professional experience placement. The camp recently ran its first edition in Victoria and continues to run several per year in New South Wales.

Now in its seventh year of operating, Recovery Camp focuses on strengths and challenges, not illness.  By placing those with lived experience of mental illness in activities such as high ropes courses, rock climbing, flying fox, giant swing and bush dancing, the consumer, which is the term used for someone with lived experience of mental illness, is pushed out of their comfort zone.

Conversation, connection and community are the main aims of these recovery-orientated activities, which are supported by health care professionals and nursing students from UOW, who can count the experience as a mental health clinical placement.

Students have the unique opportunity to hear first-hand the experiences of those living with mental illness, learning from and with each other, while fostering a recovery-focused environment.

Each camp takes on average 30 people with lived experience of mental illness and around 26 university students from nursing, psychology, dietetics and physiology degrees. Since running camps interstate, the project has facilitated interested students from a number of universities, including UOW, Charles Stuart, University of New England and ACU.

Recognised for their role in decreasing stigmatising attitudes and increasing student clinical confidence and clinical competence, the Recovery Camp program has also won several awards, including the 2018 Vice Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to Teaching and Learning.

Understanding the “black box” of Recovery Camp: Therapeutic Recreation  

The Therapeutic Recreation (TR) project works in conjunction with Recovery Camp to provide an initiative that is research and evidence based.

The project examines the effect of TR intervention on people’s engagement with mental health services by using data collected at the recovery camps.

Researchers have found that those with lived experience of mental illness who attend have shown a significant reduction in hospital admissions and length of bed stays.

Dana Perlman, who is the Director of the Pedagogical Laboratory for Physical Education and Sport at UOW and a researcher on the TR and Recovery Camp projects, says it’s an example of the power of TR.

Perlman says days like World Mental Health Day are necessary in decreasing stigma and improving understanding, something that the Recovery Camp aims to do in their activities.

“Something is going on with the experiences from the camp, that people then take out into their real lives,” he says.

“It’s about empowering people and making them feel more self-determined, making them realise they can do things like go out and get their drivers licence, or participate in activities they wouldn’t normally partake in.”

Moving forward, the project hopes to increase consumer involvement to improve the camp and therapeutic activities.

“We want to understand the ‘black box’ of recovery camp. We know that the program works holistically, but we want to analyse what is happening here that best empowers the individuals,” Dr. Perlman says.

“In order to understand the true economic impact of therapeutic recovery, in terms of manageable measures, we really want to bring the consumer into the research process and understand what they take away from the camp into their real lives.” 

“Mental health is still such an area that people don’t fully understand. It’s diverse and doesn’t fit a traditional type of model of what an illness looks like,” he says.

“Days such as this open up the conversation for people who have a tentative understanding and allow for people to go, ‘okay, I want to understand your perspective and hear your story.’”

A Worldwide IP Agreement with UOW and Movember:

Each year, one in seven young men aged between 16 and 24 will experience a mental health problem, and evidence suggests men are much less likely to seek help for mental health conditions than women.

Dr Stewart Vella, a Senior Research Fellow and sports psychologist in the Early Start Research Institute at UOW, recognised this vulnerable population and thought something could be done to improve the support systems and coping skills of young men.

What resulted was the Move for Mental Health project, a sports-based mental health program, which has addressed the mental health of more than 5000 young adolescent males through 100 sporting clubs across Australia.

It has since been given a global focus, with an estimated reach of 50,000 young men.

In 2014, the project received $2 million in funding from the Movember Foundation, leading to the creation of the program “Ahead of The Game”. This had the aim of investigating the role of community sports clubs in reducing the stigma associated with mental health problems among young men.

In collaboration with some of Australia’s top sporting organisations including Cricket Australia, the AFL, Basketball Australia, Swimming Australia, Football Federation Australia, and Tennis Australia, researchers visited a number of participating community sporting clubs over the 2016 and 2017 sports seasons.

Targeting adolescent males aged 12-17 years, their parents and coaches, the project ran a number of workshops and campaigns aimed at increasing knowledge of mental health.  Some of the programs on offer included a sports-based resilience workshop and app called Your Path to Success, as well as a workshop targeting mental health literacy, Help Out a Mate.

After a successful controlled trial in Australia, the Movember Foundation agreed to scale the project worldwide, and in 2018, UOW and the Movember Foundation entered a formal agreement to the sharing of the worldwide intellectual property rights.

This gives the project an expected reach of up to 50,000 adolescent males, with Movember having a strong global presence with offices in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, USA and Ireland.


Better caring for those living with dementia in aged care: Anxiety in Aged Care

For Associate Professor Victoria Traynor, acknowledging mental health as a part of everyday life, much like physical illness, is the key to ensuring those who suffer receive adequate treatment and care sooner.

Her Global Challenges supported project, Anxiety in Aged Care, has developed a nursing observational tool to do just that and improve the care of people living with dementia in nursing homes.

A person-centred approach, the tool uses a range of descriptors to identify, recognise and assess anxiety and fear in those with dementia. From here, this can be used by health care practitioners to inform practices for anxiety management, giving a greater quality of care for people living with dementia.

Professor Traynor says that due to the heightened sensitivity to emotions and environmental stressors that results with dementia, people can often be labelled as aggressive.

“When a person becomes labelled as aggressive, they can often become socially isolated and a stigma is attached to them, which stops staff and other people in the nursing home from engaging with them because they are frightened,” she says.

Further, the person is often given medication to sedate them, resulting in them becoming lethargic and withdrawn, unable to partake in social activities.

Professor Traynor highlights that people with dementia aren’t usually intending to be aggressive.

“They can become very distressed much more quickly than the likes of you and I, because with the cognitive impairment it can be difficult for a person with dementia to process information and emotions, resulting in them becoming easily agitated and distressed,” she says.

“We want to help practitioners identify that fear and anxiety and stop that labelling of the person as being aggressive.”

The project has collaborated with aged care organisation Uniting, who has provided access to dementia care experts in 76 residential aged care homes across New South Wales and the ACT. 

The nursing observational tool has been well received by health care practitioners, many of whom say the research is a gap in the clinical practice area.

“The health care professionals believe this tool with be really useful for their practice, as it can help them care for a person with dementia more effectively,” says Professor Traynor.

The project is currently undergoing further research, with a PhD student expected to join the research team in 2020. From there, Professor Traynor is hopeful the observational tool will be implemented into nursing homes.

“We’re going through the process of eliminating the descriptors that aren’t as useful for identifying fear and anxiety, making sure we have a core number of behaviours that can be seen,” she says.

“We’re ensuring it’s valid and reliable, and we want to ensure dementia is talked about outside the family unit, before the person becomes really distressed.” 

“Then we can reduce the stigmas that become associated with that person and give them a better quality of care and life.” 

The UOW Global Challenges team would like to encourage everyone to share their journey and empower people with lived experience of mental illness to seek support. If this topic causes you hardship, you can seek help by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14.