Stories of Hope: An Interview with Stefani Caminiti and Lauren Breen
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked Australian mental health advocates (and best friends) Stefani Caminiti and Lauren Breen to talk about their extensive involvement in several innovative mental health advocacy initiatives. Here’s our interview:
DS: It’s so great to interview the two of you to find out more about your wonderful mental health advocacy work. Each of you came to advocacy through separate routes, and you both have shared openly your personal connection to issues related to depression and suicide. Could you say a little about how these experiences affected you and how they ultimately led you to become mental health advocates?
Stefani: Yes, I have experienced severe depression and anxiety for most of my life. My first experience of it dates back to when I was eight years old; that’s 20 years for me. I was formally diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) when I was 18 years old.
In 2013, I survived a suicide attempt, which then resulted in a three-month stint in a mental health facility. In the months preceding that, I was an outpatient and invested a lot of time and energy in all types of therapy: mindfulness, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), talking therapy, you name it, I did it, and every new thing helped.
Ultimately, what led me to become a mental health advocate was when I was in the most darkest place of my life. I knew if I could somehow come out the other end, I needed to share my story to help make at least one person’s life or journey with this illness a little bit easier.
That became a goal for me and I focused on that from very early on in my treatment when I was in the hospital. I knew that if I had someone that I could have talked to in the years prior or in the days leading up to my suicide attempt, maybe things would have been different. I felt like there was a lack of that, so I then dedicated my life to volunteering and advocacy work, especially with the Inner Ninja Foundation.
Lauren: As many people know, I lost my brother Aidon to suicide in 2008 when he was only 19 years of age. So, that of course, has a huge impact on your life. You question what you’re doing, you question who your friends are, it completely turns your world upside down, and it makes you rethink a lot of things.
For me, my whole life completely changed. I started to realize that some things weren’t as important as other things and that maybe I needed to start looking at things a little bit differently, and start to have a bit of an impact on the world in some way or another. That could be very small or aiming for it to be a little bit larger.
So that sort of branched off into doing a lot of volunteering work with many of the amazing suicide prevention and mental health organizations in Perth, Western Australia (WA). I was lucky enough to work on many events with Lifeline WA; they were fabulous. I was an ambassador for Reach Out Australia, and worked with anyone that was willing to let me help, really.
DS: Tell us about your early efforts in mental health advocacy and how they have developed.
Stefani: I first started volunteering with the Salvation Army youth department, then I’ve worked with organizations such as Lifeline WA; I was a crisis support worker for them. I’m currently a mentor for Girls Standing Strong, which is a program for girls from the ages of 6 to 18, and I currently still volunteer with them.
It just sort of started out as volunteering and from there it developed to me wanting to help people or be a voice for someone who wouldn’t normally be heard. This led to me public speaking about things, different awareness campaigns, and then ultimately founding the Inner Ninja Foundation, which I’m hoping to make a non-profit charity; that’s my goal and I’m currently in the process of doing that.
Lauren: I found it quite difficult in the beginning to be taken seriously in some regards. When I was starting to get into this sector in 2009, all I had was my story. I hadn’t really done any formalized training or development within the mental health space, but I knew I wanted to do something. From there the volunteering was extremely important. It gave me a sense of what was already happening, and I realized there was a lot I could get involved in.
It was a little bit hard to be taken seriously at the beginning as I had no actual clinical qualifications. But I’ve noticed within the past eight years it has really grown into the fact that people’s stories are actually one of the most powerful tools they have within this space. It’s just very important that we tell our stories safely, with appropriate language, and with a message of hope at the end of them. Because sometimes if we tell our stories unsafely, it can actually do more damage than good.
DS: Tell us about how you met and became friends and how you realized you shared a common mission and values related to advocacy.
Stefani: Lauren and I actually met through work. Currently, in my day job, I work at Anglicare WA in the PHaMs program, which is Personal Helpers and Mentors, which work with people who are diagnosed or identify as having a mental illness. Lauren actually hired me and used to be my boss, and then we sort of kicked off from there.
Lauren is no longer based in WA and doesn’t work with me anymore, but we now work in a different capacity, collaborating with laurenbreen.com and the Inner Ninja Foundation. We hit it off straight away and became closest friends.
We then realized we have the same passion and dedication to saving lives and changing the way the world views suicide, mental illness, wellness, and brain disease. We really connected on that level and thought as women joining together we could really change and impact the world in a positive way.
Lauren: After I was volunteering for these organizations, I was working in marketing and PR, and then obviously realized I wanted to do something differently. I was then given an opportunity to work as a peer support worker within a program in Perth called Personal Helpers and Mentors. It was a Federally funded program through the Department of Social Services, still running today, and it is a peer-based program.
The people that are the peer support workers and caseworkers all have their own lived expertise of a mental health-related issue, so they’re able to build that rapport and connection with the participants very easily and are getting really amazing results. So I was lucky enough to start off as a peer support worker, worked my way up to caseworker, and then actually became the team leader of the program in the space of a couple of years
So I was managing a team of seven staff, a mix of peer support workers and caseworkers. A position opened up for a peer support worker and we interviewed Stef. She had no paid mental health experience. However, she had been volunteering in the mental health sector and had a very passionate and inspiring story about her own lived expertise, and that’s why we hired her. We hired her based on her own story, not on what clinical qualifications she had yet to achieve.
Since then, she has become one of my greatest of friends, my biggest supporter, and I think we realized very early on that we thought about things the same way. We wanted to collaborate with each other, we didn’t want to compete. We wanted to find others that wanted to collaborate, and we wanted a space where people felt supported to do what they wanted to do.
DS: What are you doing currently and what’s on the horizon with your advocacy initiatives?
Stefani: Currently, I’m still an ambassador for Lifeline WA which is a 24-hour suicide crisis line, and that’s been a very amazing experience being with them. I’ve got some really exciting collaborations in the works with Mindfull Aus, another charity in Australia and with The Rise Foundation.
I’m also still in the process of having the Inner Ninja Foundation become a non-profit which is quite a task. I’m also focusing on finishing my last three units of my degree, which is a double degree in Psychology and Counseling. I should finish that in June of this year which is very, very exciting.
Lauren: I’m doing a lot at the moment. I’m sort of based over in the US for a period of time working with some amazing advocates over here: Kevin Hines and Margaret Hines. We’re launching an organization at the moment called CNQR (pronounced “conquer”), which stands for Courage, Normalize, Question and Recovery.
It’s sort of looking to disrupt the norm over in the US, raising that awareness a bit more and trying to fight that stigma, which surprisingly is still very prevalent in the US. I’m working with some amazing advocates, and we’re doing some really exciting and innovative things, looking at a lot of mental health multimedia, videos, and online platforms.
DS: What are some simple things you would suggest if someone wants to get involved in mental health advocacy, perhaps for the first time?
Stefani: Just volunteer with a local organization in your community. You can find different initiatives on Facebook or Instagram or by googling to find what groups are around; social media is great for that. I’d start in your local community first. Think of what type of organizations have the same values and morals and mission that you have and then align with an organization that has the same as you, so you agree with what they’re doing.
Lauren: First, have a look at what’s already out there. I agree with Stefani to volunteer for some local community organizations. Become an ambassador for certain organizations you’re passionate about. Look at doing some courses, as in some safe storytelling courses, and look to connect with those individuals that are already doing things in the same space. We’re much more effective when we work together.
DS: What have you learned from your personal experiences and from your advocacy work that you think can bring hope to people struggling with mental health concerns?
Stefani: You’re not alone. The more I do this work and the more I dedicate my life to this, I realize that we aren’t alone, and that is key in my darkest moments, knowing that I’m not alone. There are other people that have experienced what I’m experiencing. Or that what I’m experiencing can potentially help someone else.
All you need is half a splinter of hope to get you through, and I always say come back to the body and breath and really bring it back to basics. Your body tells you things before your mind has time to process what’s going on. I fundamentally believe that.
Also I feel if you’re struggling, finding a health professional that suits you–keep trying. We have this loyalty to our medical professionals or health professionals, but it’s ok to shop around and find someone who suits you. It took me years to find someone, so perseverance as well.
And really, talking, as much as it sounds so simple and basic, we don’t do it enough. We often hide what we’re feeling because we feel like people don’t want to know, but people do want to know and people do care. Through sharing our experiences, through sharing blogs, social media, different campaigns, public speaking, anything–it all helps. And we can really make a change in this society that we live in. I really believe that.
Lauren: I think the main thing I’ve learned is that collaboration and support is really important in this space. It’s really easy to get into the ease of competing against one another when we’re vying for funding as organizations. But we’re actually going to have more of an impact and reduce suicides if we work together.
I know that I would give it all back in a heartbeat if I could go back and see my brother one more time. I think that is also one thing I’ve learned from this journey is that people may think our lives are fantastic now and we’re doing all these amazing things and having these amazing experiences, but we would give it all back.
I think many people in this sector are working towards doing ourselves out of a job, that is the hope. We don’t want any suicides, we want zero suicides. We don’t want people feeling like they have to struggle in silence. I think that’s a big thing, finding people within your safe space and your safe circle that you can talk to about what’s going on, that is really, really important. They don’t need to be a lot of people, but people need to realize that there are human beings out there that want to listen, that are there for you and that have your back.
About Stefani and Lauren
Stefani Caminiti is an avid mental health advocate and speaker whose mission is to help support people in achieving mental wellness. She is now completing her bachelors degree in psychology and counseling. For the past 10 years, she has volunteered for various mental health organizations such as Lifeline WA, The Salvation Army youth department, Urban network, beyondblue and currently as a mentor for Girls Standing Strong. She is also a proud supporter and speaker for SANE Australia and a proud member of the lived experience network with Suicide Prevention Australia. She currently works for Anglicare WA as a personal helper and mentor supporting people who are living with mental illness. By sharing her lived experience of battling and managing severe depression and anxiety, she encourages others to seek help and delivers the message of hope. As the founder of the Inner Ninja Foundation, Stefani believes “we all have a inner ninja within us and through self awareness, self acceptance and kindness we can allow our inner ninja to grow and become stronger.” You can connect with Stefani via her website, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Lauren Breen is the co-Founder of CNQR. Lauren was thrust into the suicide prevention and behavioral health world in 2008, after the death of her brother Aidon, by suicide. Since that life-changing event, Lauren has accumulated over 9 years experience within the mental health & suicide prevention sectors, working in Australia with Lifeline WA, ReachOut, Anglicare WA and Suicide Prevention Australia. Prior to this she worked in an array of industries including advertising, marketing, events management & public relations. Alongside her own charity laurenbreen.com.au, Lauren hopes CNQR will create an innovative twist in the way behavioral health is funded and facilitated. You can connect with Lauren through her websites or via Twitter or Instagram.
Thanks so much to Stefani and Lauren for sharing their inspiring stories of hope and advocacy!
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