Family inspiration helps Shai make a difference in mental health

Cumberland Hospital Aboriginal mental health liaison officer Shai Grigg.

The many ups and downs of mental health are all too familiar to Shai Grigg.

While the Cumberland Hospital Aboriginal mental health liaison officer has a wealth of professional training and experience, it was her personal experience that first got her into the field.

Shai’s eldest son struggled with drug abuse for years before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

As a hardworking single mum, the diagnosis finally helped explain the tough years her tightknit family had been through.

“I battled that all his teenage years and saw how it affected every aspect of his life. So I learned more about what a person with mental illness has to deal with on a daily basis and how they struggle with daily life,” Shai said.

“It gave me an insight going into mental health and utilising what I’ve learned to teach others. I can use all this personal experience to help someone else. I want to show people that mental health isn’t something you take lightly.”

Shai raises the Aboriginal flag during NAIDOC Week celebrations at Westmead Hospital with (from left) Westmead Private Hospital chief executive Mike Flatley, WSLHD Redevelopment and Infrastructure executive director Matt Sydenham, and Westmead Hospital chief medical advisor A/Prof Roslyn Crampton.

October is Mental Health Month, during which people are being encouraged to open up and share the journey.

Born and raised in Western Australia, Shai took an early interest in health and studied nursing at Perth Aboriginal College.

The Noongar woman moved to Sydney in 2000 and worked in community services before returning to her love of health.

Shai said the resilience she built raising two boys while working and studying helps her keep going in her current role, supporting Aboriginal mental health patients.

“Sometimes it’s really difficult to get someone to listen. Sometimes they’re angry and don’t want to listen to anything. I have to pick the time when and when not to talk to someone,” she said.

“Often I feel like I’m not immediately accomplishing something but I’ve learned everything you do has an impact down the track. You need to have the attitude that you always do the best you can, but in the end it’s not about me. The patient is the only one who can change their life.”

Shai has since remarried and said she now enjoys the support of her husband in her professional and personal life as a grandmother.

She also draws inspiration from the patients she has helped over the years, including a young man who was admitted to Liverpool Hospital with schizophrenia and related drug and alcohol issues.

“He was a mess. He felt he wasn’t loved by anyone and he had no place in life,” Shai said.

“We talked for an hour and it was so sad to see him in the state he was in due to circumstances beyond his control. He was in our unit for nearly six months. When he was discharged with housing and other support lined up, I told him he could always call us if he needed.

“Three months later he phoned me up he said, ‘Aunty I’m taking my meds like you told me, I’ve got a job, I’ve been going to self-esteem classes, I’ve been going to drug and alcohol support groups and I haven’t touched the stuff. I listened to what you said, I listened to the male mental health worker and I decided that it’s time to change my whole life.’ So he did.

“It gave me such joy that we were able to support him to the point that he was happier than he had ever been and he didn’t need or want for anything. He was managing his own life in his own way and he was grateful for what we did. You don’t get that all the time but when you do, it’s so enlightening because we feel that we’ve done our job and we’ve done it right.

“Mental health is not an easy area to work in but you’re helping someone get to a point where they can live a reasonable life, and that’s very rewarding.”

If you or someone you know is in a crisis situation, please call triple-0 or the following organisations for support:

  • Mental Health Hotline (Open 24 Hours) – 1800 011 511
  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue – 1300 22 46 36
  • Men’s Help – 1300 78 99 78