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Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System

Personal story:

Maria Katsonis

Maria Katsonis

Maria experienced a major depressive episode that led to a life‑threatening mental health breakdown. She sought help from a GP, who referred her to a psychiatrist. She was admitted to a mental health facility and told she would be staying for a week.

As an executive in a public sector organisation, Maria informed her CEO about her illness and the expected length of her hospital stay. However, she ended up spending five weeks in hospital, and it was another four weeks before she was able to return to work.

Maria’s experience returning to work proved to be challenging.

No one prepared me to return to work and I didn’t prepare myself. I was discharged with only an appointment to see a psychiatrist. There wasn’t any discussion of community mental health programs that could have helped me ease back into it. I had no prior experience with the mental health system and I didn’t know what support was available and what to ask for.

Maria felt that her workplace was also not prepared for her return to work.

I initially didn’t have a return to work plan. If I’d been in the equivalent of a car accident with half my body in a plaster cast, my first day back would have been a very different proposition. It was partly due to the invisibility of mental illness. Out of sight, out of mind. The organisation also had limited experience in dealing with a major mental health workplace issue.

Wanting to be open about her experience of mental illness, Maria decided to tell her colleagues about her depression. She was met with an incredibly positive response, with ‘people starting to share with me their own experiences with mental illness’.

As a result, she decided to write an op‑ed for a newspaper about the stigma of mental illness. Colleagues advised her not to write the article because they thought it could adversely affect her career. The article was published and it led her to becoming involved with peer support and advocacy. This became a key component of Maria’s recovery and she co‑founded a sector‑wide peer network as well as joining mental health advocacy bodies.

Maria highlights the crucial role the workplace plays in promoting positive mental health and wellbeing.

Work is fundamental to recovery from mental illness. It restores purpose, self‑esteem and identity—everything your illness takes away from you.

But it’s more than recovery, especially when you have a chronic mental illness like me. How can a workplace support me to stay at work so I can be productive and make a positive contribution? A supportive workplace values people with mental illness and treats them equally without fear of discrimination and stigma. Otherwise you are always wondering, is [it] okay to tell my manager about my illness? Will I be judged? Will I be stereotyped?

For Maria, having workplaces that are inclusive and stigma‑free comes down to leadership and creating a culture where mental health issues can be openly discussed.

Policies and programs on their own are not enough. They need to be championed at senior levels. It’s also essential to include the voice of lived experience in the workplace—in policy development, program delivery or other mental health decision‑making forums. As we say in the lived experience community: nothing about us without us.

Source: RCVMHS, Interview with Maria Katsonis, July 2020.