Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership
Around one in 20 Australians is living with harmful substance use. For these people, one of the harshest realities is that treatment almost inevitably results in loss of employment, with most treatment programs taking three to six months. But what if that didn’t have to happen?
This is the idea behind The Crossing, a residential rehabilitation centre planned by assorted trades unions in Victoria seeking State Government funding. The idea, which is based on Foundation House in NSW, gives workers a short-stay rehabilitation option that gives them better chances of retaining their job while recovering.
Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) representative Stephanie Thuesen (pictured below) has championed the model with Victorian trade unions.
“I became aware of it doing the summer internship at Trades Hall and I was placed at the CFMEU. I was very lucky to have it organised for me to go up and look at this service and I immediately fell in love with it for a couple of reasons,” she says.
“Firstly it’s a 28 day inpatient service, and that for me is such a point of difference for working people.
“When we’re looking at treatment times of up to three months, six months, twelve months, we’re aware that this is simply inaccessible for working people.
“So this short, sharp intervention is really achievable and we’re more likely to get the support of the employer with this as well.”
The push for a worker-focused, short stay rehab centre comes from Stephanie’s experiences supporting workers through their recovery. In her experience, employment is all too often sacrificed along the way, making the recovery journey even harder.
“One in particular, I thought he was going to die. I thought ‘I can’t get him into detox’. When I finally did get him into detox he was two minutes from the door and the ward had to shut because of COVID, then he couldn’t get in for another two weeks.
“I honestly was like, he’s going to die and I don’t know what more I can do for him at this point.
“And we actually started putting members on planes to go to Foundation House because we were desperate. We were just so desperate, and unfortunately with these members we weren’t able to save their employment.”
The original model was set up by the New South Wales branches of the CFMEU and ETU in response to increasing numbers of people presenting with substance misuse and mental health disorders.
The two unions use money built into enterprise agreements to guarantee ongoing funding for the centre, something that will also be used for The Crossing.
“What it means is that our model will not get in the way of the critical public mental health and alcohol and other drug services that are already in operation,” Stephanie says. “We see this as something that will amplify existing services.
“Inevitably what that’s going to mean is that it will take pressure off an already overburdened, overstretched mental health and alcohol and other drugs sector.”
The benefits of a worker-focused rehab reach far beyond the person receiving treatment, Stephanie points out. By keeping people with lived experience in addiction and mental ill-health in the workforce, there’s an inevitable rise in general awareness of mental health.
“When it comes to establishing mentally healthy workplaces ... the more education, the more awareness we have in every Victorian workplace and every work site, we know that will mean that people are more likely to put their hand up.”
“We know we will be able to get people back to work without having to lose their job, without having to withdraw their superannuation out of compassionate grounds, without having to remortgage their house or [choose between staying] employed or going to rehab.
“That’s a choice we don’t think any working family needs to make.”
Keeping employment as a consideration during mental health and drug and alcohol treatment is a logical step, says Stephanie.
“We know that one in five Australians will grapple with a risky addiction and at the same time we know that it takes an average 20 years for Australians to put their hand up and seek assistance with an addiction — out of fear, out of stigma and out of shame.”
In getting on board with the worker rehab centre model, Stephanie says Victoria can maintain its position as a leader in mental health reform.
“I’m delighted to say we have 30 Victorian branches of trade unions signing on.
“We’ve got the endorsement of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. We’ve just had MPs in the Northern Territory get up in Parliament last week and call on the Northern Territory Council of Trade Unions to initiate the process.
“We’re aware that it’s happening in the ACT and Tasmania as well which is really exciting.”
Coming from a union representing health workers is one reason for urgency for Stephanie. “We don’t want to be losing anyone from the mental health workforce right now.“