Why connection matters: GP’s backing for mental health program

Jolyon Attwooll

7/09/2022 3:09:15 PM

Dr Owen Harris, a GP in inner Melbourne, has a very personal reason for supporting SANE’s new guided mental health service.

Dr Owen Harris
Dr Owen Harris believes his own experiences have helped him treat patients facing similar challenges.

When Dr Owen Harris talks about the need for connection if mental health issues strike, it is a lesson he knows very well.
A peer ambassador for a new guided service from mental health organisation SANE, aimed at people with complex mental health issues, Dr Harris talks openly about his own struggles.
Now a GP in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick East, Dr Harris started using recreational drugs in his early 20s, which he says he was able to keep ‘under wraps and manageable’ for a long time.
Fast forward several years, however, to the time he was working as a partner in a busy, suburban general practice, and the situation began to unravel.
‘I was going through a toxic relationship breakup, I had health and family issues, and I was working far too much,’ Dr Harris told newsGP
He says drug use became a way of coping.
‘Rather than just using occasionally, I’d started using basically daily,’ he said.
‘I knew I had a significant problem but was terrified about reaching out because of the fear of mandatory reporting and what the consequences might be.’
Perhaps inevitably, the situation grew worse without the support or help he needed. Eventually Dr Harris became aware his business partners knew he was very unwell.
‘I came clean to them at the end of 2015,’ he said. ‘They made a report based on what they thought was best at the time and my registration was suspended immediately.’
From there, Dr Harris describes a ‘rollercoaster’ three years, which included attempts at sobriety, multiple relapses, severe depression as well as several months of drug-induced psychosis.
‘In terms of my journey, peer support programs have been really critical,’ he said.
‘The experience for me and for many people is that when you’re really suffering, you can feel very lonely and isolated so anything that can break down that isolation and connect people is really important.’
He believes that the SANE guided service, which is running as a pilot program in select Primary Health Network areas, can have a vital role to play in helping people with complex mental health issues.
Offering people one-on-one contact with a support worker, it also includes professional counselling, and access to forums and activities to help patients set goals for their recovery and managing their mental health.
Dr Harris is speaking out about his own experience to help reduce stigma and spread the word about the program.
‘A service like this is critical for filling the gaps,’ Dr Harris said, who now regularly refers patients to the program.
‘I don’t think it replaces clinical services. But if people are struggling to find one-on-one psychology, or they have something lined up but there’s a long wait, or they live in an area where there isn’t much available or they don’t want a face-to-face service for whatever reason, then something like this can be really useful for bridging the gap and reducing isolation.’
Dr Caroline Johnson, a GP with a special interest in mental health, and a senior lecturer in general practice at the University of Melbourne, is another advocate for the service.
‘The SANE support program is going to be super useful for GPs who work in the regions where [it] is currently funded,’ she told newsGP.

‘I am impressed with SANE’s commitment to involve a person’s GP in the help-seeking journey, which is so critical to reducing fragmentation of care, particularly when physical and mental health issues can be so inextricably intertwined.’
As for Dr Harris, he is now in a much better place – and is using his experience to benefit patients who find themselves struggling as much as he was just a few years ago.
‘I’ve now been back at work for two years, and it is going really well,’ he said. ‘I’m certainly aware that I’m a much happier person, and I am definitely a better doctor given everything that I’ve learned.
‘It’s really important for people to know that they can reach out for help.’
More information on SANE’s guided service, including the areas where it is available, can be found on its website.
Mental health support for GPs
For immediate support, you can call Lifeline 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36.
The RACGP also has extensive self-care and mental health resources for GPs 
published on its website.
Every state and territory has a 24/7 helpline staffed by experienced GPs and counsellors trained in doctors’ health.
Any doctor or medical student, or their family members and colleagues, can call confidentially and anonymously for non-judgmental help about their concerns.
ACT 1300 374 377
NSW 02 9437 6552
NT 08 8366 0250
Qld 07 3833 4352
SA 08 8366 0250
Tas 1800 991 997
Vic 03 9280 8712
WA 08 9321 3098
See Drs4Drs for more information.
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Dr Adele Frances Stewart   8/09/2022 7:08:57 AM

I’m so impressed that Dr Harris is being so open about is own issues for the benefit of others.

Dr Vivienne Ann Clark   8/09/2022 7:15:43 AM

A difficult journey, glad it had a good ending. Best wishes for the future.

Dr Yiying Cecilia Xiao   8/09/2022 7:19:41 AM

Thanks Dr Harris for sharing his experience and showing his vulnerability. As GPs we are fallible so support is crucial and identifying our limitations will help ourselves and for patients alike.

Dr Ileana Beatriz Seguel   8/09/2022 12:52:12 PM

Thanks Dr Harris, you are very brave to share your battles, we are just human doctors and we can have mental problems like the rest of the people. I’m glad that you are better and working again.