Carer Consultant, Partners In Recovery, South Western Sydney (PIRSWS)
“Your employers have to take you more seriously because you have a role, you are being paid, and your voice has to be heard.”
Sandra McDonald is still surprised to find herself at age 65 working in a professional peer role. She laughs easily when she says that before applying for her current role, the last time she had formally applied for a job was when she was about 15 years old.
In 2015 however, she swallowed her fear and did just that, securing her current role in the PIRSWS lead team.
In the role, Sandra provides carer-perspective input into decision making and projects. She ensures that carers engage with services and are inspired to speak up for themselves. She is passionate about the need for carers to be acknowledged and valued, not sidelined.
“If carers’ needs aren’t met, it’s so much harder to meet the needs of the consumer.”
Before her current job, Sandra’s work life involved running a small pottery business with her husband. But in 2000 the couple’s creative endeavour was accompanied by another deeply challenging one, that of caring for their son with a mental illness—a role, she says, most people are unprepared for.
From that moment on she rolled up her sleeves and began educating herself about mental illness, about which she knew nothing.
“I didn’t even know about stigma…I’m always stressing that education is what carers need.”
She got very busy volunteering, going to inter-agency meetings, advocating for change, visiting acute units with offers of help, and fundraising and writing grant applications—something she found she was very good at. Sandra is very outcomes-focused and says “yes” a lot.
In 2004, Sandra was instrumental in the establishment of Beautiful Minds, of which she is now president. It is a volunteer committee, under the auspices of the Schizophrenia Fellowship NSW, that advocates, raises funds and awareness for mental health in south western Sydney. In 2008 the committee realised a long-held dream with the opening in Campbelltown of Harmony House, a mental health recovery centre for young people.
She believes having a carer or consumer perspective in an organisation strengthens the community and drives down stigma because it creates “a more caring team…but to do that well, companies must be resourced to do it.”
Sandra, who has won numerous awards for her work, is currently developing her skill set even further via a Certificate IV in Peer Work through the Mental Health Coordinating Council.