RMIT University’s first Fulbright postdoctoral fellow doesn’t believe in mental illness, despite being diagnosed with one at 14.
Dr Louise Byrne, based at RMIT’s College of Business, says mental illness is instead “about stress and distress, not a question of being sick”.
“The illness idea suggests there is little people can do for themselves” Byrne says. “I use the term mental health challenge, as it suggests a situation that will be overcome. Everyone has mental health challenges to some degree.”
“As such, ‘cure’ is not the main goal. It’s about finding hope, meaning and defining our concept of self beyond the diagnosis,” she says.
Post-diagnosis Byrne found herself – and her wellbeing – being misunderstood, especially by traditional health professionals. It’s this insider understanding of the health system that informs her role as a “lived experience” adviser and academic.
Prior to arriving at RMIT, Byrne worked at Central Queensland University as the first full-time Lived Experience Mental Health academic in Australia. She was also the first lived experience adviser to the Queensland Mental Health Commission.
Byrne is now investigating how to better support people like her who are employed in designated lived experience roles. Ultimately, she’d like to explore how lived experience learning can inform better support for anyone with a mental health challenge in the workplace.
“Traditional health is looking for different answers to the questions around mental health,” Byrne says. “There is a growing understanding that instead of imposing a treatment and protocols, it’s much more effective to ask people ‘what is it you need’?”
Byrne believes it is time the mental health system paid closer attention to those using the system, rather than the needs of the system itself, and lived experience workers assist with that shift.
Not ashamed of her mental health history, Byrne willingly talks about it.
“The best thing we can do is be open and have many, many conversations. This is the only way we can change the broader conversation around mental health.
“The impact of mental health challenges within our community is immense. We need to stop treating mental health as a taboo subject and start sharing both our difficult times to gain support, and our triumphs - to share knowledge and collectively start to stem the tide.”
As part of her Fulbright fellowship Byrne will travel to Yale University in the US and will further her research with the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health.
Byrne will also develop lived experience workforce resources for the Australian mental health sector.
“I’m looking forward to building lasting collaborations with research colleagues at Yale and throughout America as a result of this opportunity,” Byrne says.
Story: Jane Kenrick