Raewyn has lived with mental illness for 30 years. She says accessing treatment has worsened over time


Raewyn Pepper screamed for days when she was admitted to a Tamworth mental health hospital in 1996, thinking she had been operated on.

At that time, the then 38-year-old woman had been suffering from hallucinations and hearing voices in her head for several months.

“I remember feeling like the Nazis had operated on me in World War II, I could really feel the pain of it all,” he said.

“Apparently I was screaming for a couple of days before they did any intervention.”

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, caused by the extreme pressures of his transport business and family life.

Pepper says many people didn’t know how to react to her diagnosis.(ABC New England: Peter Sanders)

“It hurt my kids a lot because it’s like they lost their mother, they didn’t know who they had as a mother,” Pepper said.

“My marriage ended and I was almost homeless.”

“It can be quite fun”

According to the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia, Ms Pepper is one of approximately 200,000 people affected by schizophrenia.

schizophrenic - brain.jpg

PET scans of the brain of a patient with schizophrenia (left) and of the normal brain (right). Research shows that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance.

“It can be quite fun, I’ve had some interesting voices over the years,” Pepper said.

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“I had Cathy Freeman, encouraging me to get fit, and I was walking a lot at the time, I felt so enlightened.”

But Pepper said some symptoms made her consider suicide.

“These symptoms are important and can destroy a life,” he said.

Support becomes difficult

Pepper said that during the 1990s she was able to receive home care and had mental health nurses visit her regularly.

You can now get medications to help manage persistent symptoms and local services to help you with basic living assistance.

But when more serious symptoms arise, you go to the emergency department.

“It used to be that you could call your local mental health hospital or your mental health nurse and they would come and support you,” Pepper said.

Their concern with the current system is that people suffering from schizophrenia cannot go to the hospital alone because they are not aware of what is happening to them.

“When you notice them, they are very sick,” he said.

“He [state government’s] “We’re supposed to be nipping things in the bud, but I think that’s a fallacy.”

Plans for a mental health unit in Tamworth

A new mental health unit is expected to open in Tamworth by 2025.(Supplied: NSW Health)

Mental health services

In a statement, a Hunter New England Health spokesperson said it had expanded service delivery over the past five years, giving the community access to an enhanced outreach program available after hours.

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The spokesperson said that for people whose problems are more serious and complex, “treatment in a hospital inpatient unit can be carried out for a limited period of time.”

Services available in the region include the Safe Haven facility in Tamworth, the Coledale clinic supporting local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the Farmgate initiative for primary producers.

A new mental health unit is expected to open in Tamworth in 2025.

Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia chief executive Tony Stevenson said mental health had been neglected by state and federal governments for decades.

A bald man with glasses, a black shirt and a blue jacket.

According to Tony Stevenson, the stigma surrounding schizophrenia and other mental illnesses is centuries old.(Supplied: Australian Mental Illness Scholarship)

“Governments promised when they closed psychiatric institutions in the 1980s that there would be support available for people to live well and safely in the community,” he said.

“That refers to housing, employment and just daily living skills.”

Recently, the New South Wales Legislative Council found that the fragmentation of mental health services in New South Wales had caused extraordinary hardship for people with mental illness and their carers.

The committee made 39 recommendations.

Committee Chairwoman Amanda Cohn said people experiencing mental and emotional distress “don’t know where to go or can’t access services.”

“If we continue as we are, people will continue to rely on emergency services and departments,” Dr. Cohn said.

A brunette woman in a green dress speaking into a microphone

Dr. Amanda Cohn says people with complex mental health issues don’t know where to turn for help.(ABC NEWS)

New financing questioned

The NSW Government has announced $111.8 million to support community mental health, including $30.4 million over four years to expand teams caring for people with persistent and complex symptoms.

Premier Chris Minns said the funding would provide around 35 additional mental health positions.

A man in a black padded jacket and a scarf.

The state government will spend $40 million on alternatives to long-term hospital care for people with complex needs and persistent mental illness.(ABC News)

“There will be five additional people whose specific job will be mental health housing liaison positions,” he said.

But Dr. Cohn doubts those roles will be filled.

“We heard through research that those services have a large number of vacancies across New South Wales,” he said.

“Those positions cannot be filled because the salaries and conditions of health care workers are not acceptable.”



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