Interview with Tara Stark about being a young carer and supporting a parent with a mental illness
Tara Stark is a lawyer, educator, and mental health advocate. She completed her LLB (First Class Honors) at the University of Melbourne.
Tara is a Mentor at Leo Cussen Centre for Law in the PLT program for graduate lawyers. Tara is also a Senior Associate in Abuse Law at Slater and Gordon, where she has held several roles since 2008. She has previously worked in local government and public mental health sector roles supporting children, young people, and families affected by mental illness.
Tara has advocated broadly on the experience of children and young people who have a parent with a mental illness and has held several lived experience roles.
She is a Director on the Board of the Satellite Foundation, which provides support to children and young people who have a parent with a mental illness.
Tara has been engaged as a speaker and community advocate on behalf of Sane Australia, Carers Victoria, Road Trauma Support Services Victoria, the Mental Health Legal Centre, the Australian Multiple Birth Association, and numerous governmental bodies, including the National Youth Roundtable and the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Prevention and Early Intervention for the Victorian Minister for Mental Health. She has consulted on the development of Victoria's new Health and Wellbeing Act.
JOEL: How did you come involved in Satellite Foundation?
TARA: I became involved in Satellite from the beginning. There were some programs that used to run in Victoria for children and teenagers who had a parent with a mental illness, and the Victorian government at that time called the funding. And we were keen to make sure those supports would continue.
So, Rose and several others who were involved in those programs came together in sort of a committee style to think about what could be done. I was around in those early days as a young person contributing to some of those discussions. And then after I'd finished uni and had some professional experience under my belt came back on as a director on the board.
What brought you involved with Satellite Foundation in the first place?
Mom's got an illness called schizoaffective disorder. So, it's a bit of a cocktail of mental illness.
It's like schizophrenia in many ways, she can experience psychosis and delusions. But it also has a fair whack of anxiety and depression thrown in with some bipolar-type elements.
So, it can go from high to low as well. I was involved in some support programs when I was a teenager because of my mom's illness. And that's sort of what led all the way through to satellite.
How did you become aware with those support programs?
I was about 15, or 16 and I was finding things tough with mom and her health. And I had a school friend who was having counseling at our local councils—youth services. And she'd mentioned my situation to her counselor, and they said that there was a program ran through their council for kids in that situation.
So, it was a bit of a roundabout route. And it was a bit disappointing to realize later down the track that I lived around the corner from some of the programs that were running for children my whole life, basically. But they're just in a mental health system, isn't always the connections that there should be to ensure that people land in the right supports.
It was my mid-teens, when I first connected into any professional support surrounding mom’s health, and she'd been unwell since before I was born. So, it was a bit of a long time coming. But it was excellent once I was there.
What s challenges did you then face growing up in this environment?
It's multifaceted. Anyone who has a family member who's unwell, feels a level of stress about that. So, you worry about them, you care for them, you want them to be healthy.
The more typical level of stress about just having someone in the home who's unwell and needs medical support—with mental health. There can be additional challenges because mom can't always think entirely clearly. Really can't wade through some of her thoughts about whether they're real or not.
Often children end up becoming a counselor, mental health nurse, psychiatrists, all the above. And that's what was going on in my situation. There's also difficulty sometimes with the finances or with advocacy-type services.
So, you end up speaking to health agencies or Centrelink, for example, on behalf of your parents. From a very young age, I guess I felt as though I was a spokesperson for mom, I could wave her, I understood her, I knew what her triggers were, I knew what her difficulties were. And I in some ways, took it upon myself to be her voice. And that's a big thing to carry as a child or as a young person.
And I think it's common for young people to feel as though they want to try and fix the situation or help mom or dad or make them feel better. And of course, looking back on that, you realize that that's not your role, and you can't necessarily fix or improve a situation where someone's mental health is so complex and so much medical support is needed. But at the time, it's hard to see that and you just want to make the person that you are feel better.
How was it all explained to you as a young person?
Mom's open about her illness, I can't remember the first time it was. She had any discussions with me, I suspect it wasn't a discussion with me, per se, but that I would have been around when she was having chats with people about her health.
Mom's open about saying, well, at that time, her diagnosis was schizophrenia. So, she would tell people, “I've got schizophrenia”. And she'd had discussions about that quite openly.
And, I was taken along to all her medical appointments, I remember sitting on the floor of the psychiatrist’s office with toys. Mom was in and out of the old institutions.
So even as a three-year-old, my earliest memories of visiting places like Orlando and not the park that she was in for months at a time. So, it was always very clear to me that there was something going on with mom's health, I can't really remember when certain pieces fell into place. But it was always clear to me that our situation was not quite the norm.
And that the upheaval that was going on was different to the other kids. I'd be randomly just pulled out of Canada for months at a time and then come back in and I was aware that all the other kids have been there and going there every day, but I was off elsewhere, living with family members when mom was particularly unwell.
It was always clear to me that there was something going on, and just gradually more pieces of the puzzle sort of fell together.
How did how did it affect you?
I threw myself into the academic side of school. And that's something that I've seen quite a lot with young people in this situation. For a lot of people that can be the education is kind of your legitimate excuse. You don't feel as though you can just go out and have fun or should go out and do that or be a normal kid.
But education felt like it was a legitimate place to be. I think structure was good for me, given what was going on at home. So, the structure of the school environment was good, because I would not structure things at home were the opposite. And there was quite a lot of upheaval in the early days and stress about money. Socially, though, I think that were impacted on me.
I was often had trouble with relationships with my peers at school. And wasn't always the nicest, because I was often angry and stressed and anxious about what was going on at home. It impacted my career choices and where I've landed professionally. And a lot of that's got to do with the supports from programs.
That was the precursor to satellite. And they gave me the space to realize that I could talk about mom’s mental illness that I could speak about what it was like to have a parent with a mental illness in a range of settings, which sort of gave me confidence with public speaking with advocacy.
And so, practicing law was something that teachers encouraged me to do. I never thought I could do it. But they told me to put it down and I got in. And I think it's shaped the sort of professional career that I've chosen.
What's your advice on how to treat this situation to young people who might be in this situation now?
As you go through, life aren't necessarily skills that everyone will end up having to build later down the track. Resilience is something that everyone must get through.
There are things that you're learning the whole way through, which will be valuable—if you can put them to the right uses.
Find support. If you've been burned, if you feel your family's been burned, that you've been done wrong by the medical profession, by the psychologists that your family member has. It's easy to become detached and cynical and cut yourself off.
But we're social people. We need support, we need a community around us. We need to feel as though we've got people that have got our back. And that can be a really difficult thing to find—when you're in a kind of crisis at home.
Google it, look for supports, find anything to do with young carers, find organizations like satellite, find a youth counselor.
I know you've got reason not to trust those sorts of professionals. But you can find good ones and they're the ones that will help you through it.
What do you think needs to happen beyond this issue?
It's funding for frontline services. If our system is that stretched, then talking about it's useless. You need primary health care to be funded, so that our psych nurses aren't burning out, our psychiatrists can continue to have a heart and see humans, because they're so stretched, that everyone's just having to move through perhaps too quickly.
Our hospital system doesn't have enough beds. So, people just must be moved on. You need to address that. And then you also need to address the intake—because you don't want people to get to crisis point.
You need different levels of service. There are now centers been designed and set up where you can go and seek mental health support without having to go through any of the other formal channels.
We need more of that, we need places where people can literally turn off and go, “I'm not well” or “my mom's not well we need help and support”.
And the other thing, as I mentioned earlier, is stuff like NDIS. I think for people with a mental illness would be good. Because if you can pitch it right, then you absolutely can be well supported as a family. Through those funding channels.
It's about making sure that community services, intake type services, and then crisis services are all properly funded, and accessible.
What have you found during your advocacy?
Mental illness is everywhere—absolutely everywhere. Doesn't matter what group you talk to, there'll be people that come to you afterward and say, That's my story.
Totally get it been there, done that. I know exactly what you're going through. I've spoken at the government level. I've spoken at the corporate level.
It impacts everyone. Doesn't matter what your walk of life is. There are always plenty of people in your room who have experienced it really close to home. And then in some ways that baffles you.
If this is something that is affecting all walks of life. And I guess part of that is that it's a complex—it's a complex health issue that affects all parts of a person's life.
It can affect housing, finances, employment, family relationships, it can affect drug or alcohol use. It's just so multifaceted.
But certainly, my experience has been that I've never walked into an environment where someone hasn't come up to me afterward and shared their story.