Sometimes in life, little things can make a world of difference. Mel can attest to this observation and has adopted a particular technique to cope with her mental ill-health challenges. She has been using a collection of simple objects that have a sensory element, be it a particular look, feel, smell, sound, or taste, to keep her grounded during periods of distress. 

This sensory kit concept is something she learnt from Mind Community Health Practitioner, Lauren Smith, who has been running a series of sensory workshops at the Prevention and Recovery Care service (PARC) Mel came to for support. A partnership between Mind and Melbourne Health, the PARC helps people transition out of an acute mental health facility back into the community or is an alternative to hospitalisation for people who can’t manage their mental ill-health at home.

In the workshops, Lauren asks participants to think about and collect items that positively stimulate or calm their senses and assemble a kit so they can have these soothing items to hand. Participants have brought everything from snow domes, bubble-blowers, yo-yos and knitting utensils.

“The groups we run at PARC are an opportunity for people to be exposed to a new strategy for coping with distress,” Lauren says. “I couldn’t tell you the number of times people have left this group feeling pleasantly surprised at how much better they’re feeling.”

For Mel, learning to soothe and manage serious negative impulses has been a lifelong challenge.

"I had a traumatic childhood and had been self-harming since I was about 12. It was during my nursing degree that it became quite apparent I had a mental illness,” she says. After a drug overdose at the age of 21, Mel began her long relationship with psychiatrists, doctors and mental health facilities, and has been in and out of hospitals for decades. 

Mel’s self-harm has had a huge impact on her daily life. She would often go through periods of giving herself a black eye, refusing to eat, or depriving herself of sleep.

“Having a mental illness is very difficult because no one quite understands the cause, or how it affects your life. They don't understand how it can be quite debilitating,” she says.

Mel’s sensory toolkit includes everyday objects such as a green ball, slime, a colouring book, perfume and even a Wizz Fizz (sherbet confectionary). “That’s for the times I need a bit of a zing to get out of my head,” Mel says. “Having something textural and acidic helps bring me back to the moment.”

Mel says using these basic items has had a profound impact on her engagement with everyday activities and even stopped her from undertaking harmful behaviour. 

“When I first got to PARC, I wasn’t really eating or drinking and I was experiencing a lot of commentary in my head. During dinner, I’d put my iPod and headphones on to help me fight the voices about eating.”

“Now I’d much rather have some putty in my hand that I can play with, rather than not eating or punishing myself in some other way. This sensory toolbox is more socially acceptable than it would be to withdraw, or have the shakes or want to rock back and forth.”

Sensory objects like the pressure ball can have the additional benefit of being tools of communication when it is difficult to ask for help or open up to others. While Mel was staying at the PARC service, this was true of a green pressure ball she had come to constantly rely on to manage anxious feelings.

This practice might not resonate with everyone, but it has been an effective one for Mel and others, and is just one of many different life-skills and strategies people can explore at a Mind support service. For more information about Mind support services call Mind Connect on 1300 286 463.