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Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System

Personal story:

Tommy

Tommy* had multiple hospital admissions for mental illness starting from the age of 19. He was admitted to Thomas Embling Hospital when he was 30, where he stayed until recently.

I have been in and out of hospital many times. I must have had over 20 admissions to public units. For about 10 years, until I came to Thomas Embling, I was never really well. I was never what I’d call stable or recovered or anything like that.

Tommy said his experience of stays in mental health inpatient units were always too short to allow him to fully recover and that the system needs places where people can stay for longer.

I’ve been on clozapine for about 12 years now. And even then, it’s probably only the last four or five years that I’ve really become stable. Which is incredible, because you think of the public system where you are in and out in three or four weeks. That’s not nearly enough time to get someone stable and well, and to the point where they don’t have to come back to the hospital anymore. It’s important to not just patch someone up but actually get them stable—it’s a thing that only time can really do.

Tommy said it took a long time with stable medication and other supports for him to recover.

It was only when I got to Thomas Embling that with time and consistent medication taking and all the therapy and all that sort of thing, that I started to get well again. I think now I am fully recovered and managing a very good mental state. It took about 15 years in Thomas Embling to get my head right.

When Tommy was younger, he said it was hard to understand the help he needed. He was put on a compulsory treatment order when he was 20.

I had difficulties with taking medication consistently. I think I never really took it seriously enough and drug use was another problem.

The [community treatment order] was a bit of a kick in the guts. I never really understood the gravity of the situation. I never thought anything was wrong. The hard part is identifying that there’s something wrong when you don’t think there is.

‘Insight’ is a big word for Tommy—he said he did not have insight into his mental illness and the impact of his offending until he got to Thomas Embling.

I wish I had access to Thomas Embling without committing an offence. If there were a Thomas Embling in the community, for the public before you commit an offence, I think that would be a real positive. If that existed, then I might have gotten back the 20 years that I’ve lost.

I’ve lost a good 20 years of my life because of poorly managed mental health. The frustration was crushing. I just couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t shake the illness. I tried, and there were no quick fixes. When you’ve got a headache you take Panadol and then an hour later it’s gone. But mental illness isn’t like that. It’s a war of attrition.

Tommy found peer support and the group sessions at Thomas Embling helpful. He said this was not something he had access to in other hospital settings.

For me, one of the best things I did was talking to my peers about similar things that have put us here, how mental illness has affected us. When I was in the acute units in the public system, they had art therapy and music groups which were more distracting people from their illness. I don’t remember having a room full of peers talk about their illness and how that affects them, and that would have been a really big help.

If I could tell my story to someone who’s just starting to get unwell, point out the things that work and what helps and what doesn’t, maybe that might help them. I wish I could say that to young people—listen, if you don’t fix this now, you’re gonna lose all that time. It’s going to cost you time off your life. If you don’t address it and do it well, do it right early, it’s just gonna consume your life.

Source: Personal Story of ‘Tommy’ (pseudonym), Collected by Victoria Legal Aid.

Note: *Name has been changed to protect privacy.