SMART Recovery Australia recently appointed Tania Skippen to our Board of Directors. Her wealth of experience in the world of mental health policy and practice will prove invaluable to the organisation’s strategic goals. We were fortunate enough to sit down with Tania and ask a few questions about SMART, mental health more broadly, and what attracted her to the organisation.

You’ve worked as a leader in mental health policy and practice for some time now. How do you think SMART Recovery Australia fits into the mental health landscape?

Many people experiencing mental health issues also have challenges with addictions, particularly with problematic use of alcohol and/or drugs. They also face similar challenges associated with stigma and discrimination. Providing opportunities for recovery across all aspects of a person’s life is very important. Everyone is a whole person with a diverse range of needs.

Australia requires a range of mental health and addictions services to suit the range of people’s needs and circumstances. This includes community based and online mutual support groups like SMART, community outreach, rehabilitation services and high intensity inpatient options. These, and a range of other services, all play a part in supporting people’s recovery journey.

What initially attracted you to SMART Recovery Australia?

SMART Recovery Australia is a small organisation with a large reach. The SMART approach is about mutual support and looking after yourself while helping others. I believe that treatment options that build the capacity of the person and/or their family and supporters to help themselves and each other is not only a respectful and empowering approach to take, but it’s economically sensible.

Families and supporters are the group providing the largest proportion of the support a person receives and they do this with good intentions and for free, but sometimes at great personal cost. Helping families and friends to understand addiction and look after themselves as well as learn how to provide a helpful response to their loved one is a sensible approach. The Be SMART program for families and friends is a very sensible addition to the range of SMART Recovery Australia products.

Child and adolescent mental health has been a major focus of your career. What changes would you like to see for children and adolescents?

I have worked across a few states in Australia and noticed that drug and alcohol or addictions services tend to exist for adults but not for young people. Many young people I saw as a mental health clinician were struggling with their mental health and wellbeing because of addictions to inhaling substances, risky drinking or drug taking.

I am always encouraged when I see these things – schools and TAFEs providing education programs and early referral, mental health and drug and alcohol services working together to provide a coordinated and holistic response for people of all ages, and staff of both services being upskilled and confident to respond to the full range of problems.

I am also impressed that some jurisdictions are offering a range of mental health and substance use programs for pregnant women and mothers as well as for whole families where substance use increases child protection risks. Providing prevention, early intervention and tertiary specialist services for parents will deliver so many prevention and early intervention benefits for their children, helping them stay safe and well as they grow to adulthood.

Outside of your valuable work in mental health and with SRAU, what else are you passionate about and interested in?

The things that make my heart sing are family, friends, music, creativity and connection. I am always curious about the way people live and what I can learn from them, so travel has been a big part of that learning. Standing in the British museum a few years ago and looking into the cabinets at the beautiful, colourful ceramic bowls that were made centuries ago without electric pottery wheels or gas kilns, I was astounded. It reminded me how clever human beings are and that we lean towards beauty and form even when resources are scarce.

How would you like to see SMART Recovery Australia improve?

I had worked in mental health for nearly thirty years and had never heard of SMART Recovery Australia. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that fellow Uni student involved in leading SMART Recovery Australia told me about it during a class one day.

I just couldn’t believe that such a strongly evidence-informed, free-low cost, recovery focused program that was accessible online or in local communities was not more widely known. Any program that is low cost, effective, contributes to cost savings to individuals and society, and can easily be scaled up would also be attractive to government.

For me, the improvements for SMART Recovery Australia are not so much to the programs but to the promotion of them.