WALKING A HEART-WRENCHING MILE IN JUSTINE BROGNA’S SHOES

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By Peter Dewar

Chandelier fit for a ballroom, floor-to-ceiling wallpaper, glorious framed print. An interior befitting a luxury hotel pops from my screen. The grandeur of Justine’s lounge room might tempt you to think hers has been a charmed life. Mistake. This mental health advocate is the first to say, to really know a person — begin by listening to their story.

Justine is the practice director of allied health care clinic Treehaus and an experienced psychotherapist. She’s also the driving force behind ‘Walk a Mile in my Shoes’ — an event in support of mental health, more important than ever during a pandemic that’s unleashed an avalanche of need.

Justine does indeed live in a wonderful house in Hobsons Bay. But an image over Zoom tells nothing of the road to get there: a path paved with anguish and heartbreak that’s demanded Justine’s all. The truth is, Justine’s present circumstances are a world away from a modest childhood home in Altona living with a mother suffering from a debilitating mental illness. If nothing else, Justine’s story is a reminder our future is not defined by where we find ourselves today.

‘My journey’s not all about suffering,’ remarks Justine, concerned her mother Lucy is misunderstood. ‘Mum gave me great love. She was a dancer … I became a dancer because of her. She taught me the beauty of art and music. She taught me about loving people no matter what they did to you. She was always proud of me, and made time to listen no matter what she was going through. She bestowed the power in me to keep going.’

But there’s no denying the unique challenges of Justine’s upbringing. ‘My mother told me things no child should ever hear,’ Justine explains. Barely kindergarten age, this only child was so accustomed to acting as confidante to the adults around her —playtime consisted of lining up teddy bears in an imaginary waiting room ready for their counselling session.

Trips to hospital to visit her mother after surgery were frequent. But, unlike the chaos at home, the medical environment was predictable; there were answers. A safe haven. By mid-teens, Justine was actively forging a pathway to become a doctor or psychologist.

In Justine’s final year of high school, her mother was tormented night and day by inner voices, and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Lucy tried many times to end her life. Justine vividly recalls the moment her mother turned to her, saying: ‘I can’t keep living this way; I hope you can understand if I can’t be there anymore.’

Justine sought solace in a busy life as a youth worker; running dance classes on weekends; holding down a part-time job as a Subway manager — all the while, studying for a double degree at university. But she was determined the story of every trauma, of every harrowing experience, be told one day to help bring the topic of mental health out of the shadows.

Justine was only twenty-two when she gained accreditation as a practitioner and began working in psychiatric wards. She subsequently pursued a career in both public and private mental health settings, opening a practice, Treehaus, which offers a broad range of mental health services. Justine was a member of the Womens’ Advisory Committee for Hobsons Bay Council when in 2018 the inaugural ‘Walk a Mile in my Shoes’ event was conceived.

Lucy passed away from heart failure in 2019, aged 62. Justine responded to the cancelling of last year’s walk due to COVID-19 by running one kilometre for every year of her mother’s diagnosis. Twenty-one gruelling kilometres in total. The event raised almost nine thousand dollars and was donated to local schools for student wellbeing hubs.

COVID-19 restrictions permitting, an event will go ahead this year in an appropriate format on World Mental Health Day. Funds raised will once again go towards student retreat spaces. Unfortunately, the larger public walks, which have in the past offered up to one thousand an opportunity to share experiences with one another, are something for 2022.

The health care crisis and ballooning waiting lists in the west aren’t lost on the practitioners at Treehaus Justine says. To anyone seeking help, she advises starting with your family doctor; although, a friend’s recommendation, or internet search of local psychology or counselling services are avenues worth pursuing. But, keep trying.

An expansion of Treehaus is planned for 2022. Consulting rooms will double, an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) clinic established, and space for yoga and dance therapies purpose built.

To honour the possibilities denied to Lucy by her mental illness, Justine feels obliged to live a life fulfilled. While it might be said the seeds of her ambition and determination were sown in childhood trauma, it’s taken decades to heal the hyper-vigilance once relied upon as a coping mechanism.

Today, the girl once known as the ‘Organiser’ is more secure, and happy to report a sense of feeling ‘grounded or anchored’, and certainly ‘present’. Justine’s emerged from turbulent waters more composed, and is as dedicated and committed as ever to help alleviate the pain mental health sufferers may endure.

For more information on the ‘Walk a Mile in my Shoes’ event on Mental Health Day 10th of October visit, ‘Walk a Mile in my Shoes’ on Facebook.

To find out more about the services Treehaus provides visit: www.treehauswilliamstown.com.au

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing a personal crisis, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at their website: lifeline.org.au.

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