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Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System

Personal story:

Jen Riley

Jen Riley

Working overseas as part of a youth ambassador program when she was in her early twenties, Jen contracted dengue fever. This was the start of many years of living with health problems, including being very unwell with chronic fatigue, which had a significant impact on her mental health and wellbeing.

I just felt so alone and frightened about what it all meant for the rest of my life. I was ashamed and embarrassed about my condition.

Initially, Jen was told that she would not be able to work for up to 12 months, so she arranged to take leave from her job with the Commonwealth Government.

She started working with a mental health team, including a psychologist and an occupational therapist to support her recovery.

I found a psychologist with a sport psychology background who understood high‑performing personalities like mine. She really got ‘me’ and was able to work with me to accept what was happening.

Finding the right treatment team was a life raft. I had been trying to marshal my own resources to find solutions, but they helped me make sense of it.

When she was ready to go back to work, Jen’s psychologist recommended she stagger her return in shorter stints at first and work two or three hours a day, twice a week.

In consultation with her manager, Jen’s workplace identified a team and a project that matched her skills and availability and planned for her return. Jen said she felt anxious about going back to work but received great support from her manager.

My workplace was so supportive it was amazing. We developed a work plan and a project that suited my skills and availability. I never felt as though I was being pushed harder than I could perform. They could see I was really trying, even though my illness wasn’t particularly visible.

As her recovery progressed, Jen felt well enough to start working more hours and incorporated regular breaks into her day. Her workplace supported this adjustment until she was well enough to gradually return to working full time again.

It meant everything to be able to work at a pace that suited my recovery. It meant I could participate in conversations with friends about work, just like everyone else.

Having a job really provided me with a sense of forward momentum and gave me something to strive towards.

Jen said that the coordinated support she received to return to work was an essential part of her own recovery journey. She said that being able to work while she was recovering was incredibly valuable and helped her own sense of dignity and identity.

I do believe that without the work component, I don’t think I would have recovered. It just anchored me during a time of life that I could have derailed.

If I didn’t have that, I would have just been lost at sea—like what’s the point? I had some really dark moments, but the job gave me hope that I could get back to a normal life. That I could be engaged and productive and use my intelligence and everything I’ve worked for.

Source: RCVMHS, Interview with Jen Riley, November 2020.