Steve Barnes sees through the illness and gives young people hope

Steve Barnes is often the last hope for many young people who suffer with mental health problems. As a clinical nurse consultant, the Austral mother of three has spent 30 years working in drug, health and mental illness.

She is one of the faces on ABC’s Changing Minds: The Inside Story, which is run over three episodes. Episode one is on tonight.

The first season was filmed at Liverpool Hospital last year. This season follows the treating teams in Campbelltown Hospital’s mental health unit, including Mrs Barnes.

It explores the vulnerability of young people and the importance of managing mental illness as early as possible, the impact of drugs and alcohol, the support of families and stereotypes.

Mrs Barnes said keeping the topic in the public domain was imperative.

“Public perception of mental illness can be part of the problem,” she said.

“The stigma attached to mental illness is a huge barrier to people accessing treatment themselves.”

Mrs Barnes works with young people with complex needs, often with drinking or drug addictions.

“Some take drugs because they want to. Others use them to escape from reality. Some people’s reality is horrible,” she said.

“Dependencies on drugs is a complex interaction and the impact of that on the mental illness — but that’s not our aim. We want to reduce the harms associated with their drug use.

When a young person comes into the health service, Mrs Barnes talks with them, figures out where they’re out, what’s going on, underlying issues. “That takes time,” she said.

“I work with them as inpatients and in the community setting, so get the time to get to know them beyond the drug use and the illness.

“It never ceases to amaze me how underneath it all, there is usually a nice young person.

“I see a lot of families at the point of losing hope. By the time they see me, the young person has often drifted socially into a subculture of drug use.”

In episode two, clinical nurse consultant Steve Barnes visits Nathan, 24, who’s in denial about his schizophrenia.

Alcohol and methamphetamine amplify the voices in Nathan’s head, which he believes everyone can hear.

After being found asleep on the side of the road, Nathan becomes psychotic.

In episode three, after a week of treatment on the ward, Nathan and Mrs Barnes have it out.

Nathan wants to go home, but not before she extracts the truth of his drug-taking.

Later in the episode, she takes Daniel, 20, whose cannabis addiction is masking psychotic symptoms, home on leave.

An emotionally charged reunion with his grandparents reveals more of his tragic childhood.

Having quit his cannabis addiction, he takes a dramatic step to avoid future temptation.

Mrs Barnes said her approach was not always direct with the young people.

“Sometimes we just hang out ... go have a coffee,” she said.

“We just walk and talk about general things and throughout that, you hear what’s going on.

She said the teenage years were difficult.

“You can’t tell what’s normal and abnormal. But if you’re worried about a young person, then you need to seek help.

“Your GP is a good place to start. They’re well aware of the services and can refer.

“There are a range of self-help groups and mental health services that have crisis teams that also run after hours — they’re good for advice.

“But educating yourself about mental illness is important. If you’re child has been diagnosed, understand it. Understand there is hope in these situations. It’s not always going to be easy and not a quick road to recovery.”

An often-quoted statistic is that one-in-four Australians has experienced or will experience mental illness.

Psychiatrist Dr Mark Cross believes the figure is significantly higher.

“If you include mental disorder, drugs and alcohol, mental distress, emotional distress through somebody’s lifetime, actually it’s almost one-in-two, if you look at all those other factors,” he said.

But there’s still a stigma attached to it. Both patients and families report they feel the stigma is often more worrying than the symptoms of mental illness itself, and negative, stereotyped depictions can make their lives even harder.

“I’d love there to be a society in the future, in Australia, where there’s no stigma against mental illness.”


■ Changing Minds: The Inside Story journeys with mentally ill patients on their road to recovery, from breaking point to breakthrough

■ The second series emphasises the plight of younger patients, aged 18 and over, who are most at risk of developing mental illness

■ The series follows 10 characters whose mental illnesses do not discriminate in age or social standing

■ Nicholas, 18, a bullied schoolboy who relieves his anxiety by self-harming

■ Daniel, 20, whose cannabis addiction is masking psychotic symptoms

■ Taileah, 20, a recently graduated nurse whose stress manifests in distressing auditory hallucinations

■ Nathan, 24, whose schizophrenia allows him to chat with Hitler and Muhammad Ali

■ Joel, 18, a rebellious teen struggling with a tragic past

■ Fabrice, 36, a barrister’s son with persecutory delusions about demons and devils

■ David, 47, who believes he’s Elvis Presley

■ All the patients agreed to be filmed while unwell, and formally consented when recovered

■ It is broadcast over three consecutive nights during Mental Health Week (from Tuesday, October 6 to Thursday, October 8)