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Young student developing a mental health program

Zoe Barnes. Image courtesy of JCU

An 18-year-old nursing student who’s set up a mentoring scheme to help young people battle mental illness has won a $10,000 grant to further develop her innovative program.

James Cook University first-year nursing student Zoe Barnes founded Common Connectionsto fill the gap between young people and the existing healthcare system.

Ms Barnes said Common Connections pairs young people with a peer mentor in their community who shares a common interest.

“This provides a platform for them to connect with each other and eventually it becomes a gateway to more meaningful conversations about mental health. The mentor supports them and provides information if they need to seek help for mental illness,” she said.

Ms Barnes entered a competition run by the ABC called ‘Heywire’, where she told the story of her own battle with mental illness. This led to a partnership with Headspace – the National Youth Mental Health Foundation program for 12 -25-year-olds – and an application to the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR).

“I was shopping with my partner and I got the call saying that I had received the $10,000 grant from the FRRR. I almost dropped to the floor in the meat aisle while trying to find some lamb chops, I was in so much shock! I started to tear up, I was so happy!”

Ms Barnes said the money will go towards starting Common Connections in her hometown of Mackay.

“The best feature of Common Connections is that it’s been designed to cater to all communities, being very simple and flexible. I should be getting a look at the budget within the next couple of days,” she said.

Ms Barnes said she found her way through her own depression with the help of Headspace and a decision to focus on the needs of others.

“I was sent to a mental health clinic due to the severity of my conditions. The counsellors suggested I take up a past-time, something I enjoyed doing. I realised that I’m a person who cares more about other people than I do myself. So I used that to my advantage.”

She became active in her community, joining a Zonta Club, Amnesty International, Rotary, and organising school fundraisers. She finished school as Service Captain and as a Youth Ambassador for Queensland. In 2017 on Australia Day she was named Mackay District Council’s Young Australian of the Year.

“In November 2016 I went to Fiji for my first ever international volunteer trip. I volunteered at Treasure House Orphanage for two weeks, helping the staff and hanging out with the kids. I’ve also been asked to become an ambassador for Headspace Mackay which is pretty cool!”

She said it was hard now to recognise herself as the person trapped in depression at 13.

“I’m honestly surprised that the person in that dark place was me. I am a completely different person now. Giving back to my community has been my way out.”

Source: JCU

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