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Fellow in Focus: Prepared to talk

1 Mar 2021

Senior Mental Health Clinician, Sophie Heathcote, was in the first batch of Fellows of CRANAplus announced at the organisation’s conference in 2011. She has a long history with the organisation: she’s a past president, has served as treasurer, been the NSW CRANAplus representative, and represented the organisation on the National Rural Health Alliance and the Mental Health Council of Australia.

I’ve had a few roles.” Sophie agrees. But being invit­ed as a speak­er at the 1991 con­fer­ence is one of the most mem­o­rable. To be able to share my sto­ry – hell on earth for every­one involved – and to feel the sup­port that CRANAplus gave me, strong and unend­ing and out of the blue, I’ll nev­er forget.”

Sophie came out to Aus­tralia from Eng­land in the 80s as a twen­ty-some­thing Reg­is­tered Nurse on a work­ing visa and imme­di­ate­ly decid­ed she want­ed to live here. Her first job was in a tiny com­mu­ni­ty called Goodooga in New South Wales, almost on the Queens­land bor­der. Com­ing from the Cotswolds in Eng­land she knew rur­al. This was com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent, but there were hors­es, one of her loves. Then she moved to Wilcan­nia to work as a remote area nurse at a hos­pi­tal with no res­i­dent doc­tor, but with access to the Roy­al Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice (RFDS) by radio and phone.

There was an inci­dent with a trag­ic out­come. A young man died. What fol­lowed includ­ed a series of inves­ti­ga­tions and inquiries. It was a moment in time that point­ed Sophie in the direc­tion her nurs­ing career has tak­en ever since.

The case fed into my career and my life,” she says. I knew I need­ed to learn from this expe­ri­ence. It told me I need­ed to be far more aware.” Sophie embarked on some seri­ous stud­ies at Charles Sturt Uni­ver­si­ty, achiev­ing a Bach­e­lor of Health Sci­ence (Nurs­ing), fol­lowed by a Grad­u­ate Cer­tifi­cate in Uni­ver­si­ty Teach­ing and Learn­ing, and then a Mas­ter of Clin­i­cal Nurs­ing, focus­ing on men­tal health and drugs and alco­hol. She taught at uni­ver­si­ty, devel­op­ing a men­tal health course, before return­ing to remote nursing.

The case was in all the news­pa­pers and CRANAplus approached me. That’s when I was intro­duced to the organ­i­sa­tion. Sabi­na Knight was prob­a­bly the first per­son to con­tact me and she was mas­sive­ly sup­port­ive. I don’t think I felt like run­ning away, but I did need sup­port – and I got it.

I have always been pre­pared to talk about the case. It’s the only way to learn. We need to address cul­tur­al safe­ty, issues around drug and alcohol.”

Sophie has worked for the past 11 years for Marathon Health, a non-gov­ern­ment organ­i­sa­tion, as a men­tal health nurse. She has run a youth pro­gram for dis­ad­van­taged youth from 14 upwards in and around Dub­bo, a small town of less than 50,000 peo­ple. She also works close­ly with the jus­tice sys­tem, with Abo­rig­i­nal and non-Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who have been incar­cer­at­ed, who are in rehab, or who have men­tal health or drug and alco­hol issues.

Back in the 90s, the ser­vices were very few and far between and it was the gen­er­al nurse pro­vid­ing the ser­vice. There are improved ser­vices, like the pro­grams with Marathon Health run­ning now through­out West­ern NSW. There is the abil­i­ty to have short-term ther­a­py, to get help with issues around alco­hol and trauma.

I don’t know, though,’ says Sophie, if we have come that far with incar­cer­a­tion rules, deaths in cus­tody. I don’t know if it has improved. How many of the rec­om­men­da­tions have been enforced?”