“it’s all about connection”: mental health peer worker uses their lived experience to help others

Posted on 20th January 2022

cohealth has a long history of employing people with lived experience, recognising the impact that lived experience workers have on client outcomes. cohealth mental health peer worker, Snezana, shares how her past experience of mental ill-health gives her a unique ability to support her clients. 

When Snezana was in and out of hospital struggling with mental health issues, she says she couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Her mental health issues had first started in her teens, but she never fully acknowledged them until she was in her 30s. 

“I’d been working in advertising which was exciting but as I worked my way up the corporate ladder it became more stressful with greater demands,” says Snezana. 

“The fast pace of work meant I wasn’t acknowledging what was going on mentally. Using substances became a survival mechanism.” 

After a series of involuntary hospitalisations and late-night ambulance callouts, Snezana said she felt lost and isolated. 

“I felt like a walking diagnosis. If I’d had someone working with me who had been through a similar experience, I think my recovery would have been much quicker and easier. I just needed someone who could say, ‘I get it. I’ve been there. Things can get better.’” 

Thirteen years on Snezana is now using her own experience of mental ill-health as the basis for helping her clients.  

“When I found out there were jobs where I could use my lived experience, I felt like a door was opening. I’d always been interested in mental health and psychology.” 

“One of my colleagues at a previous workplace showed me an ad for cohealth’s lived experience cadetship program*. I immediately felt cohealth was a place aligned with my values, so I applied.” 

Snezana has now been working at cohealth for seven years after completing her cadetship and going on to become a mental health lived experience worker. She has also started a Bachelor in Social Science major in Behavioural Studies. 

“As a lived experience worker, you’re able to use part of your journey to help make change and provide hope. It’s about connection. You can make connections with someone through mutuality, and that’s very powerful, and empowering,” says Snezana.  

Snezana says that being good at her job also means knowing where to draw boundaries. 

“When I do share, I only share what I feel appropriate. I also question whether what I’m sharing is of benefit to the client. That takes time and practice.” 

“I say to them, ‘This is what worked for me’, but I always remind them that it is only my experience.  

“Ultimately, no two people will have the same experience because our life journeys are different. Although people may feel lost, they’re still the expert in what they need. They may need guidance, but they know what’s best for them.” 

Snezana recently began working in cohealth’s mental health and wellbeing hubs operated by cohealth across Brimbank, Melton, Moonee Valley and Melbourne. 

The thing I love about this program is we’re supporting people with mental health barriers who may never have accessed help before, or even known they had mental health issues. This program helps people with difficulties that have arisen due to COVID whether it’s related to finances, work or relationships,” says Snezana.  

“I get to meet people in their homes and out in the community. I meet people where they’re at.” 

“Some clients that I am working with are struggling with relationships, work demands, home schooling and juggling being a parent. People are stretched to the limit. So, we talk about coping tools and strategies.” 

With applications opening on 17 January for the Lived Experience Peer Cadet Program, Snezana encourages anyone considering applying for a lived experience role to give it a go. 

“It’s an amazing opportunity, and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a flexible, rewarding job, in a welcoming environment. Once you get a start in such a great organisation, it can be a springboard to so much more,” said Snezana.  

“I never would have believed you 15 years ago if you told me I’d be studying and working as a mental health worker. But it all started with that first step.” 

*The Lived Experience Peer Cadet Program is an employment opportunity for people with lived experience undertaking the Cert IV in Mental Health Peer Work, to enter paid employment across one of six participating Victorian non-government community mental health services. 

Beginning February 2022, the program offers a paid two day a week cadetship over 12 months at one of several Victorian health-based organisations. cohealth is one of the participating organisations. 

Peer Cadets will develop knowledge, skills, and confidence in a structured and supported environment. Throughout their employment, cadets will receive supervision, training and reflective practice opportunities that are discipline specific. 

Applications opened on 17 January 2021. Find out more via the Mental Health Victoria website.    


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