New mental health ‘Safe Haven’ to bring relief to those suffering from emotional distress

Michelle Banfield’s favorite place in the world is the cottage in the backyard of her home in Murrumbatman, outside Canberra.

The ring, where the four alpacas roam, comes in second.

“Maybe my animals are my main therapy, if you will,” said Ms. Banfield.

“I am surrounded by them and they maintain a level of calm inside me.

But knowing what she needs for her mental health is a long way from where the Australian National Academy was at the age of 27.

Michelle Banfield was taken to the hospital by a friend in 2003, who realized she was suicidal.(Supplied: ANU / Tracey Nearmy)

After a fraught solo trip to Peru, Ms Banfield withdrew from her PhD studies at the Australian National University and found her mental health deteriorating.

“I got to that crisis point in January 2003, when I was like, ‘Well, nothing I wanted to do, nothing I was planning to do, nothing I had worked for was really coming, so I probably shouldn’t,'” she said: “I won’t be here anymore.”

A friend realized that Mrs. Banfield had suicidal tendencies and took her to the emergency department.

“Emergency departments are not where people with severe emotional problems should be,” Ms Banfield said.

“They’re exhausting for anyone who’s out there, let alone someone who needs a space to talk to someone – they’re just not prepared for that kind of thing.”

Hospital staff completed a number of assessments and sent Mrs. Banfield home without treatment.

In the end, I found the help—and the bipolar diagnosis—that I needed elsewhere.

But the experience sparked a drive to help shape a space that perfectly met the needs of a Canberrans who felt as helpless as her.

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The ACT Government’s Safe Haven Room where people can access mental health support. (Supplied: Facebook)

‘Pivot’ spaces provide peer support

A mental health researcher has now helped create Safe Haven, a center opening today at the Belconnen Community Health Center in Canberra.

The space is one of four similar ‘locally responsive’ spaces in Australia – the others are located in Wollongong, Blacktown and Campbelltown – and there are plans to create another in South Australia early next year.

Safe Haven in Canberra, which is funded by the ACT government, will work alongside local health services but is mostly a place where people can speak to trained staff who have faced their own mental health challenges, such as Ben Martin.

Ben Martin
Peer mental health worker Ben Martin.(ABC News: Rosie King)

“I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and that started hearing when I was 23 or 24,” said the peer worker.

Mr Martin has been passionate about helping others struggling with their mental health since his diagnosis, and said the power of shared experience cannot be underestimated.

“It can be really pivotal,” he said.

“I used to talk to doctors and clinicians and psychologists and they usually aren’t able to rely on their own experiences, even if they have some of it themselves.

A curly-haired woman in a suit stands in an outside yard.
ACT Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson hopes Safe Haven will help reduce the demand for existing services.(ABC News: Antoinette Radford)

Part of Safe Haven’s goal is to reduce pressure on existing mental health services in Canberra, including emergency departments notorious for being overburdened.

“It provides an opportunity for people to seek help early in their mental health journey, so before they reach the kind of crisis they need to go to the emergency or stay in the hospital,” ACT Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson said.

“Having a service like Safe Haven to help people connect to the right service in their place will help people get to the recovery space sooner and stay in that recovery space longer.

“That’s the great thing about working with peer mental health professionals – they can help you navigate the mental health system to find the right service as soon as possible.”

For Ms. Banfield, she said opening up is critical to setting her on the path to recovery.

“There is a lot to be said for sharing,” she said.

“Having a shared experience, understanding that someone is not there to fix you, they are there to listen to you, walk by your side and listen empathetically to what you are going through, is invaluable.”

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