Champions of Mental Wellbeing: The ANU Advisers to Staff Team

7th October 2021

The magic of healing happens through the counselling relationship

It’s October: the month of Halloween, an unsettling phase of the lockdown, and most importantly, World Mental Health Month. On the first day of this magical month, when I found time to curl up on my lounge with a book, I picked up one from my favourite series of all time—Harry Potter. The television was on the background with talk about mental health, COVID updates, and what not, and I tuned in and out.

At that moment, I came across one of my favourite lines:

“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.,” said Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

And while this was probably the hundredth time I was reading the book, I encountered a Eureka moment of sorts—the Harry Potter saga was a marvellous example of lessons in mental health. Be it the soul-sucking Dementors draining out your happiness or happy spells like the Patronus charm that eliminate the darkness, the books hold innumerable metaphors and examples that represent the daily battles we fight again depression, fear, dread and anxiety. In fact, many of the mental health struggles faced by the characters in Harry Potter are actually based on author JK Rowling’s own experiences of clinical depression.

The Dementor-like phenomenon of depression is unbelievably debilitating and controlling—even the most logical, practical and strong people can succumb. For the past year and more, I’ve personally battled depression and anxiety, and probably would have been much worse off, if not for a network of amazing wizards and magicians who have helped me through it this far. This predominantly includes the Adviser to Staff at ANU—part of the Employee Assistance Program.

The magic of healing truly does happen through a counselling relationship. And on the occasion of World Mental Health Month this October and on World Mental Health Day (10 October), what could be more fitting than to check in with the team that works relentlessly behind the scenes to champion mental wellbeing for all of us on campus—the Advisers to Staff.

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Very few people really know the faces behind our mental wellbeing champions on campus. So, please tell us more about yourselves.

The Advisers to Staff (A2S) are part of the broader and comprehensive EAP program at ANU alongside two external providers: Assure – 1800 808 374, and Relationships Australia – 6122 7100. The service is comprised of two ongoing counsellors, Dr Maaria Haque and Gail Frank. Due to the increased demand over the past 18 months created by the fires, hailstorms, Covid 19 and the rollout of university contractions, we have an additional position for six months, which has been taken up by Carolyn Farrar, who knows the University well and was previously the Head of ANU Counselling for more than four years and, prior to that, a senior counsellor for three years.

Gail Frank is a Registered Psychologist with more than 30 years of experience and has been in the Staff Adviser role for 13 years. Dr Maaria Haque is a Clinical Psychologist with more than 15 years of experience across a variety of inpatient and outpatient mental health settings and joined the Adviser to Staff team in 2019. Carolyn Farrar is a Mental Health Social Worker with 25 years of experience working in mental health settings.

What’s a day in the life of an Adviser to staff like, in the university context?

The majority of our work in the university context is to provide one-to-one counselling/therapy for staff who present with a wide variety of issues. We can each see up to six staff members a day. The majority of our clients are self-referred; however, we are sometimes also asked to check on the welfare of some staff members if an area of the University is concerned about the wellbeing of an individual. The Advisers to Staff have the training and experience to work with most presentations; however, occasionally we will refer people to other mental health professionals and medical practitioners for specialist assessment as required. We also provide, and take part in, clinical supervision with clinicians from ANU Counselling.

What are the different kinds of challenges and scenarios that you help people with on campus?

That’s a really good question. We see a wide variety of presentations, and we think it’s really important that people understand they can bring either work or personal issues to any of the EAP services. Often it is one or the other but, of course, one also influences the other, so sometimes it’s both or one morphs into the other as we work through the problem. We can say hand on heart that we’ve never had a presentation that we thought wasn’t worth a talk.

What is your advice to students, staff and academics on managing mental wellbeing and seeking support when they need it?

Our advice would be to seek support early. There is such a wide range of support available to staff and students on campus, and our hope is that people would be comfortable in seeking support early in a problem rather than trying to struggle along alone. These services include but are certainly not limited to the EAP services, Human Resources and Work Environment Group, ANU Counselling, the Dean of Staff and Dean of Students, Thrive, the Ally network, RRU, The Community Wellbeing Team, Heads, deputies and support staff in residential colleges, security and your own supervisor.

How do you manage your own mental wellbeing, given that you’d often be dealing with difficult situations and negativity?

Having a good support system around our clinical work is critical. As far as managing our own mental wellbeing, not only do we, the Advisers to Staff, support each other but we are supported by the Head of Counselling on clinical matters, and also by the Director of HR who always backs our work but respects the boundaries around confidentiality. Being part of a professional body means we are expected to engage in not only ongoing supervision but ongoing professional development, which helps to keep us current and drives our enthusiasm for the job that we do. On a personal level, we keep an eye on our own work/life balance and connect with our personal supports, which underpins our sustainability in this role.

Also, it may be surprising for people to know, that despite the serious issues that people bring to sessions, we experience these sessions as a privilege, and can be energised by the people we talk to. We consider the relationships and interactions with our clients to be very meaningful to us, which allows us to do the work that we do.

What or who inspires you in your profession?

We are inspired by each other—we have such a breadth of knowledge and experience across our own team (A2S) and the clinicians at ANU Counselling. Clinical supervision and more informal debriefs mean we get a lot of support and advice from each other. Apart from that we are inspired by our mentors, both past and present, our PDR, and of course our clients. We are in the box seat to know that we have a fantastic staff body, all of whom are so impressive.

There’s a lot of talk and digital campaigning around mental health these days. Do you think this has helped more and more people access help, or does the stigma of mental health still prevail?

It’s really heartening for us to see that there are now increasingly different options for people to access support around their mental health. We think if this helps people to feel comfortable in seeking assistance when they need it, that’s a great thing. We think there may still be some level of stigma amongst some individuals, families and communities, but we’ve also come a long way in normalising that most people are likely to struggle at some point with something in their lives, and it’s so important that they don’t need to struggle alone.

The World Federation of Mental Health has named the theme for World Mental Health Day 2021 as ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’. Why do you think this theme is both important and relevant today?

As mental health professionals we know that inequity contributes to mental illness and access to mental health services will impact recovery. If we are serious about supporting mental health, then addressing the social inequalities that contribute to mental illness is a no brainer!

If you had one wish in the realm of mental health—be it related to people, policy, medicine, or anything else—what would it be and why?

Our wish for our client group, ANU staff, is that we hope staff feel willing and able to engage in the range of supports available to them – that people don’t hesitate to make use of the EAP services.

One thing we often notice in our client group is that there is often a lot of demand on staff, which means it becomes hard to keep up a good balance of work, rest and play/downtime, which often ends up being costly to one’s sense of wellbeing. We find ourselves often talking to our clients about life balance and ideas of kindness to self.

We think it can be so helpful for staff to take the time and opportunity to seek assistance, maybe from the EAP service to reflect on their personal strengths, priorities and vulnerabilities in the workplace and their life so that they can better understand themselves and maintain this balance with a view to thriving.

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That’s really fantastic advice and words of wisdom from the Adviser to Staff team. In our current times, it’s perhaps easy to be desensitised to the concepts of mental wellbeing and seeking help—often, people hear about them a lot but still perceive them as far-removed from their reality. But most people who have been through it would agree that it can hit anyone anywhere, anytime (if it hasn’t already).

Mental health guidance and support can be found all around us. Harry Potter is only one example of books, movies and resources that teach us about the power of mental strength, support systems to fight and triumph over darkness, and magical mantras that pull you out of the darkness.

And so, as I recline on my living room lounge once more, with the humdrum of day-to-day life buzzing around me, I know that it’s OK not to be OK sometimes. I pick up my Harry Potter book again and sigh with contentment and ease, knowing that my Adviser to Staff will be there to help me through the darkness.

Expecto Patronum!

This October, as we ring in World Mental Health Month, here are some resources for support, if you or someone you know needs them. Check out this handy Mental Health Resources Kit and get involved in the various events and activities planned for the month!

By Gouri Banerji

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster