Peer Health Coaching Program addresses mental illness

diabetes: three women exercising in a park

A Peer Health Coaching Program from mental health charity, SANE Australia, in partnership with Neami National, aims to change the fact that Australians living with mental illness – especially severe, ongoing conditions – have dramatically worse physical health that the rest of the community.

In a recent report, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) stated that it “is seriously concerned about the inequalities in terms of physical health and life expectancy of people with serious mental illness”.

“People with severe mental illness are likely to die up to 25 years earlier than the general population from conditions such as respiratory or cardiovascular diseases caused by obesity, smoking, and a lack of exercise. This is alarming and avoidable,” says Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia.

Arthur Papakotsias, CEO of Neami National, says there is incredible value in receiving one-on-one support from someone who shares a lived experience of mental illness.

“It shifts the dynamic to one of equals, where the coach and the person being coached have common ground to build on. This is one of the most powerful approaches we can adopt to improve the physical health of Australians living with serious mental health issues.

SANE Australia has partnered with Neami National to develop a unique Peer Health Coaching program to empower and support consumers to make health behaviour changes that will minimise the risk factors and better manage their physical health, to promote positive health outcomes.

After piloting and evaluating the program over three years, the two organisations are ready to offer it to other mental health organisations across Australia.

Working with Peer Health Coaches who understand the challenges, people who complete the program report a number of positive outcomes such as starting and maintaining regular exercise, cooking healthy meals, losing weight, stopping smoking, and improved mental wellbeing.

“I wanted to try things a different way this time and Peer Health Coaching was really successful for me,” says Rhiannon, who participated in the program following multiple hospital admissions associated with an eating disorder.

“There was that immediate understanding that I was working with someone who had that lived experience of mental health recovery and that I would be understood. I found that really reassuring and I felt that we could really work through problems together.”.

As reported in the RANZCP’s report, Keeping the Body and Mind Together: Improving the physical health and life expectancy of people with serious mental illness, “psychiatrists and other health professionals need to be encouraged to recognise that weight gain and physical decline that so often occurs with a diagnosis of serious mental illness are by no means inevitable and there are effective interventions to reduce the risk of this happening”.

The Peer Health Coaching Program has won the Mental Health Services Conference 2015 award in the Physical Health and/or Primary Care category.

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