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First Step newsletter: Winter 2022

When there is a change of government there are always ramifications in the health sector - some obvious and immediate, some evolving over time. People who were watching the campaign may have noticed a commitment to reinvest in Medicare ($1B promised), and to put significant energy into making the NDIS more efficient and impactful.

Less obvious is Anthony Albanese’s long-standing commitment to viewing addiction and substance use primarily as a health problem, rather than a matter for law enforcement. This would not seem a radical perspective for our community, but it is a rare and welcome attitude from the highest office in Australia, which we hope will lead to a more compassionate attitude across the country to people living with addiction.

I want to thank everyone who donated to our Harm Reduction Campaign. We raised over $35,000 which means we can continue supporting the most vulnerable people in our community throughout their recovery journey.

Now, as we approach the end of financial year, it is your last chance to reduce your taxable income by donating before June 30th.

For a grassroots organisation like First Step, tax-deductible donations are essential to our continued existence. We need your help so that the people we support can get all the help they want and need from one team in one place.

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer

Are illicit drugs bad? Thought Leadership Event

In late May, we hosted our Thought Leadership Event to explore the topic: ‘Drugs saved my life’ – are illicit drugs bad?

It was an insightful, inspiring, galvanising event with an extraordinary panel offering perspective, delving deep into their own lived experiences and answering tricky questions. All of this, overlaid with intense passion and compassion.

Dr Alex Wodak, Australia’s leader in harm reduction and addiction treatment reminded us to ‘put the patient in charge’ and provided a potted history of the racial motivations behind prohibition. Baden Hicks, lived-experience peer worker and advocate for change, emphasised the impact of kindness in his recovery. Dr Gyu Lee shared insights from so many corners (academic, clinical, personal, coal-face) and told us that recovery was by far the hardest thing he’s ever done - harder than multiple medical degrees. And Dr Shalini Arunogiri brought research alive, challenging some of our compassionate, but rusty ideas, encouraging us to believe that trauma-focussed care doesn’t have to wait for recovery.

You can watch a recording of the event:

Perhaps the quote of the night was from Dr Wodak: ‘A network is great. But a movement is even better.’ We curated Monday night’s conversation because human beings only make real progress when we get in a room together and nut it out. We need to keep having these conversations, we need to be clear on what we are asking of our leaders, and we need to continue to refuel our compassionate hearts.

Photos from the night are available on our Facebook page

Thomas Ponissi - First Step Legal

I’m in my fourth year of Law and Global Studies at Monash Uni, specialising in human rights.

But that’s not what I thought I was going to do when I was a teenager – I wanted to be a film director! My first year out of high school, I studied media and hated it.

It was a discouraging time to be young and progressive, because everywhere I looked, I felt like I saw systems or structures going in the opposite direction. I really struggled to see where I fit; I became lost and fell into a depressive slump. I ended up dropping out of Uni and spending a lot of time evaluating what I needed to do to have a sense of purpose again, to feel that it was worth getting out of bed. I had to reconfigure how I understood success and value.

I have always been passionate about equality. As a queer person, I have lived experience of prejudice; at the same time, I am mindful that I come from a place of privilege in many other ways. Coming to terms with this tension made me interested in understanding how I could work collaboratively towards challenging some of these problems. I didn't want to just talk about things on the sidelines; I wanted to actually get in and contribute, to be of service in some capacity.

Practicing law is itself a performance; when done right, it can radically improve someone’s life.

I started as a volunteer paralegal with First Step Legal last year, and this March moved into a paid role as Legal Administrator. I triage all the new First Step Legal clients, work with our lawyers and clinicians, and manage the volunteers.

Because I started as a volunteer first, I have some unique insights to support new volunteers. I try to encourage them to have good boundaries, to recognise and accept the limits of their resilience and their capacity to empathise. In this work, it’s important to accept our limits and that there are situations beyond our control. I’m trying to contribute to a workplace culture that is actively mindful of this.

I’ve always been interested in the things that I’m doing now, I just had a roundabout way of getting here. I thought that I would use the media to highlight these issues, but instead I interact with them directly.

I’m mindful of the limitations of the law, but I am also increasingly interested in criminal defence, particularly through the lens of restorative justice and therapeutic jurisprudence. This fits in with how I view the world – I think restorative practices are applicable to every area of our lives, both day to day and in the larger issues facing us: race, gender, climate. It’s about rethinking the traditional approach to health and justice and recognising that there’s so much more we could be doing.

Reorienting my life to be more values based, as opposed to outcome driven, has been incredibly helpful.

 Thomas Ponissi, First Step Legal Administrator


The Road Home Project good news story

The Road Home project sees our unique integrated team embedded in crisis accommodation 1 day per week. Working with Launch Housing East St Kilda, a First Step Legal lawyer, GP and mental Health nurse provide wrap around services to some of Melbourne’s most vulnerable women.

The project has been running for 6 months and in that 28 individual residents have made 113 appointments.

Brianna* is one of the clients who has seen practitioners across all three disciplines:

Brianna hasn't had somewhere safe to sleep for over a year. She started living in her car after her ex-partner assaulted her (again), but then the car got stolen.

Brianna comes to Launch Housing with a very long list of things that are stressing her out – she is in debt and her Centrelink payments are about to be suspended, she has outstanding legal matters and she hasn't been able to get advice about an intervention order against her ex, she hasn't been able to see a doctor in a while and she is running out of medication, and she is not sleeping and is noticing that she feels anxious all the time, has very little tolerance for others, and sometimes thinks about how much easier things would be if she just ended it all.

Through the Road Home project, Brianna is able to see a doctor for her medication and some overdue health checks, talk to a lawyer about her legal matters and see a mental health nurse who works with her on developing strategies to help her feel less anxious and manage her mental health better.

The Road Home collaboration meant Brianna’s Launch Housing case worker could refer her to receive brokerage funding which paid for new glasses. Brianna reports that these things have helped her gain confidence about what is next for her and is very appreciative of the support she has received.

* We have changed the clients name to protect her privacy

 Kym Coupe, Program Manger, The Road Home Project              

Dom Vigilanti - ResetLife

I was always interested in supporting people that were struggling, marginalized people.

I started my career with the Salvation Army in 2000 and over the next 15 years moved through many of their programs.

My first placement was at Flagstaff crisis accommodation, and that was tough for a new worker - I hit the ground running and learnt quickly! I saw that clients being released from jail had access to drugs, and it became evident that what they needed was case management to prevent drug use and a plan to support their mental health.

Over the years, I learnt that whilst drug and alcohol issues might start as a behavioural pattern, they very quickly become an illness. And then we need to deal with the illness, rather than the behaviour. When we focus just on behaviour, we’re missing the point, and that’s where judgement comes in. When we start addressing a behaviour that started 20 years ago, it’s no longer about the behaviour.

After the Salvos, I moved to Gamblers Help Eastern, managing teams who support people experiencing harm from gambling. Gambling impacts the same reward pathways that drugs and alcohol do in our brain. It’s a behavioural issue that needs community education.

And then onto Incolink, a commercial building industry organisation, where I was again in a management role and providing policy advice. We implemented an industry policy that took a supportive, rather than punitive, approach, to members who tested positive for drugs. We looked at how we could support them to keep their job, rather than completely destroying their lives by taking it away from them.

But I was missing hands on work with clients. I wanted to return to my roots. So, when the role at First Step became available as a ResetLife Primary Therapist, I thought, ‘perfect, I just want to be a clinician!’

Since starting at ResetLife, it’s been a breath of fresh air. I love the structure; I love the support that we provide to people that are committed to the program. In the past, I worked in harm minimisation - it’s a completely different mindset working with ResetLife clients who are committed to abstinence. And I love it because you can see outcomes.

Throughout my career, I thought that advocacy was where I sat best and what I wanted to do because it would have the greatest impact. But that didn’t bring me as much personal fulfilment because you don’t see the outcomes for a long, long time. With one-on-one work, you get that instant fulfillment and see that change from one week to the next. So, for me this work, this gets me going!

Dom Vigilanti 
Primary Therapist