Gabrielle Vilic, Deputy Chair of the Queensland Mental Health and Drug Advisory Council, is an accomplished and respected leader in the mental health sector, having been instrumental in spear-heading the lived experience workforce movement here in Queensland.
Gabrielle is currently Director, Social Inclusion and Recovery, Metro South Addiction and Mental Health Services, Metro South Hospital and Health Service.
Hers is a story of resilience, unlikely destinations and above all gratitude for the twists and turns that life takes.
Gabrielle was a high achiever, class captain and an exchange student to Michigan USA in her final year at school. Her chosen field was fashion design, and she managed a successful team at JAG design. It was her employer who suggested something was amiss, and ultimately her GP who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.
Nothing could have prepared her for what was to follow and, on reflection, it was the contrast of this experience that has informed Gabrielle’s desire to change the system from the inside.
A year on from having her son, Gabrielle had her first admission to Gold Coast inpatient ward for six weeks, and a chance meeting with a Young ARAFMI support worker inspired Gabrielle at a time when she needed it most by referring her onto the right support services.
“That meeting with Tracy literally changed my life. It gave me hope, purpose and direction,” said Gabrielle.
Within a short space of time, Gabrielle took up a role implementing the Mental Illness Education program into Queensland secondary schools. Within 18 months, she was coordinating the program and says it had a huge impact on the students.
“The level of student engagement spoke of the appetite for information. It was an honour to be there imparting my knowledge and experiences,” said Gabrielle.
“That role was life changing, my boss had faith in me, which gave me confidence and profoundly influenced my life direction.”
At the time, concepts of prevention and early intervention weren’t mainstream and the focus was mainly on treatment and recovery. The idea of a person with lived experience of mental health issues working in such a role also had limited acknowledgement within the sector.
As is Gabrielle’s natural drive, she soon ascended roles and responsibilities, she completed a Bachelor of Social Science, and became Branch Coordinator at Mental Health Association, Consumer Consultant at Gold Coast Hospital and Health Service, with responsibility for ensuring consumer perspectives were included in all aspects of the service’s strategic planning, delivery and evaluation. It also saw her back—this time working—in the ward where she was treated previously.
“We built a team culture, based on the lived experience perspective. It took time and eventually the program was well accepted among staff.”
Life was good and all was well, when a physical and mental health scare tipped the scales for Gabrielle in 2016.
“It was a humbling experience, having worked with 70 per cent of the staff, I was again on the other side as a patient.”
Gabrielle says of the experience, that it was both good and bad. And that returning to work was hard. The fear, stigma, shame …
Her illness took her back to the patient experience, which she credits with strengthening her resolve.
“After being well for more than 20 years, I realised my experience of mental illness was in the past—it wasn’t a ‘living’ experience. It presented gifts for me here in the present.”
For others working in the sector, regardless of whether you have a lived (or living) experience of mental health issues, Gabrielle says it’s so important to find support in others who work in similar positions, especially if you work in isolated roles or locations.
“Give permission to your colleagues to ask if they think you’re not doing okay: know what your cues are and tell those around you, so they can be aware and support you.”
According to Gabrielle, encouraging staff to take care of each other in the workplace is at the core of people management, and is a large part of her role. Work and personal boundaries can and do have respectful overlap within her team.
Gabrielle’s advice for all of us is to find support in the workplace that works for you. Know what to prioritise when you feel yourself overly stressed. Be vigilant about self-care, and do what you can to maintain good physical health. Eat well and move your body. Tune out and turn off regularly. And above all, be patient and kind with yourself.
Knowing keenly that mental and physical wellness are deeply aligned, Gabrielle acknowledges her life outside of work that serves to keep her well: her husband, family, friends, volunteering as a surf lifesaving patrol member, meditation and daily yoga practice.
“Mental illness is no different to a physical illness and managing it takes self-commitment and mindfulness. I don’t regret anything in my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”