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First Step newsletter: Autumn 2022

As the federal election looms, it is a good time to take stock of what we care most about. Yes, our families of course. But as we extend the circle of care outwards, where do we put our efforts, our passions, our vote, our resources? What movements for change do we admire from afar, and which do we want to be part of?

First Step is part of a global movement for compassionate support of people who use illicit drugs, not least of all the many who are adult survivors of childhood abuse. Don’t hesitate to be part of this conversation across our social media channels.

Our renowned multidisciplinary team is funded from a number of sources including Medicare, Victorian Government (Department of Justice) and Federal Government (Primary Health Network).
None of these funding pools allow for sufficient overheads to cover the true cost of helping people – the communication, the teamwork and the patient planning needed; none of them fund the ‘glue’ that holds it all together – the Operations Manager or the Reception team; and there is certainly no funding for advocacy to government or to reduce stigma.

Whilst we advocate to government for adequate funding of programs, we continue to rely on our community to support our work.

This week, we are launching our Harm Reduction campaign. With the generosity of Wheelton Philanthropy, every donation made before May 7th will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $20,000.

Please enjoy the stories and perspectives we bring you in our Autumn Newsletter.

Our best wishes to you all.

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer

Helping lawyers just be lawyers

The First Step Legal (FSL) team recognised that some of our most vulnerable clients who needed case management support, didn’t fit the eligibility parameters of existing programs of our Health Justice partners. This meant that the client simply was not able to receive the support they needed, or our lawyers would try to be all things to all people.

And what FSL needed, was for someone to support our clients while they navigated the resolution of their legal matter.

With the support of the Collier Charitable Trust and other funders including Igniting Change, I was appointed as a Social Worker in the FSL team in October 2021.

When I started, my role was to build a bridge between legal and non-legal services. This has now evolved to include intensive care coordination, information and referral support, developing long term plans, and incidental counselling.

What I find most rewarding about my role, is being able to identify gaps in the system, or in services, and work out how we can better support clients, how we can advocate for them, and how we can elevate their voice.

That is the core of Social Work for me – social justice and empowerment, working alongside clients and looking at the broader systems for social justice.

And that is what drew me to First Step Legal. The team are so passionate about getting the best outcomes for our clients, and equally as passionate about what we learn from working with them that can inform policy change. Otherwise, we are just putting a band-aid on individual clients, rather than addressing underlying issues.

Working as part of a Health Justice Partnership, we focus on all aspects of a client’s life – we want to understand what else is going on that contributes to the offending or the legal matters.

My legal literacy has grown exponentially! And our lawyers can now focus on being lawyers, rather than also trying to be an advocate, support worker, and source of information and referral.

It also means that our clients have another therapeutic person to support them through the legal process, through court hearings, and to translate legal terminology. I engage with clients early, to build a good rapport, as we know this leads to better outcomes.

We recently had a client that FSL was supporting for fines and criminal charges. She had complex mental health issues, a significant eating disorder and misuse of alcohol. Initially, she was attending her appointments regularly, but then became overwhelmed and her mental health deteriorated, and she stopped turning up.

At first, she was difficult to get in contact with, but we persevered and over time learnt that she had other fines and debts she needed support with and got a better understanding of additional services she could benefit from to help manage her mental health. For example, we referred her to a financial counsellor so she could learn to manage her money.

The magistrate was able to see the impact of the client’s mental health conditions and saw evidence of appropriate support mechanisms in place. We had a good legal outcome and the legal process for the client was well supported.

I am so grateful to work for an organisation where I can make a direct impact on the lives of our clients.

Hannah Barker
First Step Legal
Social Worker

Who are you and what matters to you?

Through our newsletters we share stories about our clients, our impact and our work.

But we are also interested to learn about you, our supporters.

In February, we sent out a short survey, welcoming your thoughts on a few key questions, and this is what you told us:


1. What describes your connection to First Step?

54% of our supporter’s study or work in the field of mental health and/or addiction or the legal sector.

We heard from a supporter:
The information I have learned from this organisation [First Step] I have used in my current role of employment consultant in the disability sector. I have been able to build connections with my clients and we have developed an open dialogue in regards to AOD issues and harm reduction techniques. I am currently linking my harm reduction techniques with counselling to maintain my clients while waiting for services to intake them in Geelong.

2. What would you like to read about in our newsletters?

43.9% of our supporters would most like to read about client stories and testimonials in our newsletters, followed by how to reduce stigma (21.2%) and about First Step programs and projects (15.2%)

We heard from a supporter:
I am in recovery and want to see stories of similar efforts toward recovery and it isn’t necessarily focused on success. You have to give people who have lost a loved one, or lost themselves, a forum to openly speak.

So, we took this feedback on board and have created a ‘Client Stories’ page on our website:

If you would like to contribute a story or testimonial, please email [email protected]

3. Who would you prefer to hear from in our communications?

30% of our supporters would prefer to hear from clinical staff and 26% from our clients.

Bringing you stories from our clients can sometimes be tricky, but we are working hard to ensure that the voice of lived experience has a greater platform in our communications.

Check out our new Client Stories page on our website and we encourage all members of our community to engage with us across social media.

4. First Step is grounded in the following principles - which of these are most important to you?

Over half of our supporters felt that our goal of providing vulnerable Victorians with all the support they want and need from one team in one place is the principle that resonated most with them.

One supporter commented:
That principle is so rare in the Victorian health system – First Step are in the vanguard / system leaders in this regard.


We greatly appreciate that positive feedback, but we are not resting on our laurels. First Step is in the middle of its strategic planning process and even better service coordination and collaboration is top of the list.

If you missed out on responding, not to worry as we will send another survey out later this year.


How art helped Sammy heal

Sammy is a 22 year old gifted artist and talented writer.

Sammy is a survivor of sexual abuse, perpetrated by her stepfather.

She was referred by Headspace Elsternwick, when it was determined that her complex PTSD and mental health needs would be better managed by the First Step Mental Health Integrated Complex Care (MHICC).

In exploring what her goals and aspirations were, Sammy identified that she wanted to again create art – she had previously made art to manage her mental health symptoms and as a form of income, selling her works at street and art markets.

On Sammy’s behalf, we applied to the National Psychosocial Flexible Funding Brokerage program to purchase art supplies. This program is designed to support people with severe mental illness overcome financial barriers to social inclusion. In other words, we can pay for those things people need to really start being active, contributing and using and developing their skills.

For Sammy, it provided an outlet for her emotions and assisted in the healing process during her self-reported ‘dark days’. And it allowed for her to make new social connections selling at the markets.

Sammy’s work was discovered by a local artist who invited her to present at an upcoming exhibition. This opportunity broadened her life skills, increased her confidence and resilience, and made significant improvements to her self-worth and wellbeing, as measured by her treatment team.

As a teenager, Sammy journaled to help process her experiences. With the team, she identified some training goals to complete a short creative writing course. This was supported by the Flexible Funding Brokerage program.

Each week, Sammy would share with her treatment team what she was learning and what her challenges were. Working together, she learned to use her writing as a coping strategy to manage her emotions.

Sammy continues to face all her life challenges with admirable strength and self-reflection, and no longer needs such intense support. She fills her days with art, gym and has recently taken on the responsibility of owning a puppy! Although we miss seeing Sammy (and her puppy) weekly, not needing us in the same way is indicative of all the hard work she has put in.

by Hayley Pedley
Care Coordinator, Mental Health Services
NPS Flexible Funding Brokerage

False Starts                            

For people accessing alcohol and drug treatment, it’s a big step.

It takes a lot of courage to admit that they are not managing well and to seek help, so we understand that when it comes time to turning up to the first appointment, there might be a false start.

We get it.

Participants might feel guilt or shame for missing that appointment, but the ResetLife team work hard to normalise this experience and let them know that it doesn’t mean they can’t come again. Our goal is to provide a positive experience so when they are ready to engage, whether with us or a different program, they are not scared off.

About 50% of participants have a false start – most of these people are new to treatment.

When it comes to ResetLife people don’t start straight into the program, there’s a bit of a run up. They meet the team, they visit the space, and they start to feel safe and comfortable and get a sense of hope before joining. It is also an opportunity for us to get to know them, to understand what their motivations are, what they want to achieve.

We connect with them through their feelings and their thoughts, we build trust, and that significantly increases the likelihood of them coming back. Like with any treatment model, it’s about the relationship between the client and the staff.

The ResetLife team knows that this is a tough process because our team have worked in this space for a long time. We understand.

When they join the program, participants are introduced to new theories, new languages, new behaviours and this can be very daunting. For some, it’s a bumpy landing and they might wonder if it’s really for them. Questioning if this is the right program is normal, but we have found that if a participant gets past the first month of treatment, then the likelihood of them staying engaged with the program increases significantly.

About 40% of people drop off and continue to self-manage. This does not exclude them from coming back when they are ready.

And when they are ready, we’ll be here.

by Benn Veenker
Manager, ResetLife

Find out more about ResetLife: