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Building a safe space

After experiencing his own mental health struggles, Ben Doust is helping others turn their lives around, trading a career as a carpenter for a more rewarding role supporting people at their most vulnerable.

For Hervey Bay resident Ben Doust, the decision to trade a 15-year-long career in construction for one building safe spaces for people at their most vulnerable was extremely personal.

Having been diagnosed with depression at 18 and bipolar at 21, Ben is no stranger to the challenges mental illnesses pose to those who live with them. But after cultivating a successful career as a carpenter and becoming a father, Ben thought he had overcome the worst of his struggles and that he was managing his mental illness just fine by himself.

That was until May 2019, when after two years of trying to ignore his declining mental health, Ben was admitted involuntarily to a mental health unit in Maryborough. The 38-year-old from Culcairn, New South Wales, had just split from his partner after nearly 12 months of travelling Australia in a caravan with their one-year-old son, and said the stress of his relationship breaking down brought everything to a head.

“I was going through a few things and was in a new environment where I didn’t know anyone either socially or in my industry, and it just became too much,” Ben said.

“It was the lowest point of my life."

But the two weeks he spent in the unit also proved to be a turning point – for both his mental health and his career.

“It wasn’t until I was in the mental health unit that I realised I had to do something. I didn’t want to end up back in there again,” Ben said.

“When I was in there, there was this lady that came in as a peer worker with lived experience, and I thought it was pretty interesting. So over the next couple of months I started looking at what I could study in mental health and I came across the peer work course.”

Ben enrolled in a Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work (CHC43515) at TAFE Queensland and said that in learning how to help others with their mental health, he learned to embrace his own.

“I guess I’d always been aware of my mental health issues, but I had never felt comfortable discussing them with anybody; it just wasn’t something that came up,” Ben said.

“But over the course of the year doing peer work, I learnt so much about myself – so much about mental health and how it can affect everyone differently – and it gave me the confidence to own it. It’s been the most beneficial thing in my mental health journey.”

Ben has completed his certificate and is now working independently through the NDIS as a mental health support worker while he completes his Diploma of Mental Health (CHC53315). It’s a role he's clearly passionate about, describing it as “absolutely magic”.

“I work with a 20-year-old who has severe social anxiety, and when I first started working with him eight or nine months ago, he wouldn’t make eye contact and we’d go to get something to eat and he’d stand a metre or two behind me while I ordered at the counter. Now, I’m supporting him while he’s doing work experience at one of the cafes, and he takes meals out and puts them on the tables while I’m standing out the back, and it’s just awesome to see,” Ben said with pride.

“I love going to work because I’m helping people regain their independence. To me it feels like I’m living the dream, because I can make a difference to somebody’s life."

“As a builder, you can do a bathroom reno or build someone a new house and they’ll be stoked, and that’s a fantastic feeling. But I’ve never jumped out of bed in the morning like I do now. It’s a really rewarding job,” he said.

According to data published by the Black Dog Institute prior to the pandemic, nearly half (45 per cent) of Australians aged 16 to 85 will experience mental illness in their lifetime, with one in five (20 per cent) experiencing some kind of mental health disorder in any one year. Yet only 46 per cent of people with mental illness access treatment – a statistic Ben hopes to use his skills and newfound confidence to help change.

“I feel a sort of responsibility to put my experience out there and help reduce the stigma,” Ben said.

“Lived experience is priceless. If you’ve been in the dark place as I call it, others who are experiencing that tend to relax a bit more and are more willing to let their guard down around you so you can help.”

Ben went on to explain how he shared his mental health journey with his football club as part of a presentation they organised after a young local took his own life.

“No one had a clue about my journey at my footy club, but within 24 hours of that presentation, I had three different people get in touch with me to say that they had been struggling,” Ben said.

“And while it’s terrible that they were struggling, it felt pretty amazing that I was able to help them reach out for support.”

In the wake of the global pandemic, the demand for skilled support workers is on the rise, with crisis and support services reporting a sharp increase in calls, and the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment projecting a 15.4 per cent increase nationwide in employment opportunities in the social assistance services sector over next five years.

TAFE Queensland is helping to produce a pipeline of skilled workers to fill this demand, with their East Coast region alone reporting a 20 per cent increase in Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work (CHC43515) enrolments and an incredible 132 per cent increase in Diploma of Mental Health (CHC53315) enrolments during the 2020/21 financial year.

For Ben, the decision to enrol was one he’s glad he made.

“Even if I can just help a couple of people than that’s amazing,” Ben said.

“Twelve months in the mental health peer work course has brought me that much further forward, and I would recommend it to anybody, whether you have a lived experience yourself or you’re a supporter of someone with lived experience.”