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Sharing diverse stories of courage, purpose, vulnerability and authenticity

Courage, family support and the ability to silence inner critics can help turn adversity into positive change, according to leaders from health and other sectors speaking at the Giant Steps 2022 conference recently hosted by Safer Care Victoria.

In our final report from the conference, Croakey editor Jennifer Doggett provides a wide-ranging #LongRead for the Croakey Conference News Service.


Jennifer Doggett writes:

When Dylan Alcott was a child he and his older brother Zack would fight for control over the TV remote at their family home in suburban Melbourne.

Zack worked out he could put the family’s TV remote on top of the fridge when he went to the bathroom so that Alcott couldn’t change the channel while his brother was out of the room.

From the outside this may have looked like exploitation of Alcott’s disability; however, Alcott now describes this incident as one of the reasons behind his future success.

The Paralympian and Australian of the Year told the Giant Steps 22 audience that the authenticity of his brother’s attitude towards him made him realise that he could show up in the world on an equal footing to people without disabilities.

This gave him the courage and self-esteem needed to overcome feelings of inadequacy during his teenage years.

Dylan Alcott – photo supplied by Alcott

Alcott was one of a number of speakers at the conference who demonstrated the transformational power of storytelling and the value of learning from other people’s experiences and perspectives.

These speakers shared how they were able to draw strength from adversity, as long as they acknowledged the difficult and traumatic experiences and were given appropriate help and support.

Purpose and drive

In her keynote address, the founder of the Auburn Giants Football Club, Amna Karra-Hassan, described how her career achievements were motivated by growing up at a time when many Muslims experienced discrimination and exclusion. Early experiences at school, of being asked where she was from, gave her a purpose in life.

“I wanted to be the person who does something about the things I care about, like how people decided who I was before I even opened my mouth. Being angry about that fuelled my drive to succeed,” Karra-Hassan said.

Karra-Hassan has used her role to promote issues such as the mental health of women and girls, including creating a “Kick away the Blues” video to promote the benefits of talking about mental health and seeking help.

Screenshot from Amna Karra-Hassan’s presentation at #GiantSteps22

She urged attendees to embrace the difficulties they encounter in their lives as “discomfort is the elixir for mediocrity.”

“Get in the belly of the beast, otherwise things won’t change,” she said.

Karra-Hassan advised those wanting to shift the narrative to be clear on their aspirations and goals and to find like-minded people and work with them. She highlighted the importance of leaders making decisions that align with their values and of both being accountable and seeking accountability.

She also acknowledged the need for leaders to look after themselves, particularly given that there are always challenges.

She said that this can look different for everyone but for her, therapy has played an important role.

Screenshot from Amna Karra-Hassan’s presentation
Screenshot from Amna Karra-Hassan’s presentation at #GiantSteps22

Strength and confidence

Alcott described how overcoming the challenges of having a disability gave him the strength and confidence to pursue professional and personal goals, such as competing at Paralympic Games in both wheelchair basketball and tennis.

He said the hardest thing to get over was people’s low expectations of the capabilities of people with disabilities.

Realising that he did not have to define himself by other people’s perceptions of him gave him the confidence to take on new challenges in his social and professional life.

“Be bold – if you put yourself out there, good things will happen,” he said.

Along with his advocacy in the media, Alcott has used his profile to set up the Dylan Alcott Foundation with the core purpose of helping young Australians with disabilities gain self-esteem and respect through sport and study.

He has also created the “Ability Fest” event – an inclusive festival with added accessibility (such as elevated platforms, Auslan interpreters, a chill zone and guide dogs) to raise funds for the Foundation.

The compounding impact of multiple unexpected and traumatic events on young people in Victoria was discussed by youth advocate, Zahra Sufeeya, who presented jointly with Dr Sandro Demaio, CEO of VicHealth.

Sufeeya shared how this string of events, which included bushfires, a pandemic, an earthquake and racially fuelled violence, have impacted her mental health and shaken her sense of a safe environment.

After talking to other young people in her community she realised that she was not alone in her experiences and then felt less isolated.

Sufeeya described how pausing and enjoying the little moments has helped her get through the past two years.

She also highlighted how she had used her experiences to inform her work as a youth advocate, connecting young people with the support of VicHealth in order to improve the health and wellbeing of young people in Victoria.

The importance of families

The importance of families, as a source of support, encouragement and a key component of resilience in later life, was highlighted by speakers who shared their diverse experiences of tragedy and trauma as children.

Musician, broadcaster, and author Clare Bowditch described how her parents taught her about hope and how their faith provided comfort after the death of her sister from a rare form of Multiple Sclerosis.

Bowditch said this taught her that “this isn’t all there is, there’s more”, helping her overcome challenges with mental health and eating disorders as a teenager and adult.

In his keynote address, Alcott, athlete, philanthropist, entrepreneur and 2022 Australian of the Year, discussed how support from his family got him through his difficult early years, involving long stays in hospital and multiple painful operations.

Family support was literally life-saving for another speaker, 18-year-old Elliot Nicholas, a transgender youth from Geelong.

Nicholas described how he struggled with his mental health at a school with a dominant heteronormative culture, and living without any contact with other transgender people.

At one point, Nicholas was so depressed that he thought he wouldn’t make it to his 17th birthday but support from his family and his parents’ acceptance of his identity enabled him to access the care that he needed.

Nicholas highlighted how his struggles to acknowledge his gender identity have motivated him to create safer and better educated environments for the LGBTQI+ community, including being involved in local school programs, Geelong’s local LGBTQI+ group GASP and in his role as Junior Mayor.

#GiantSteps22 Twitter

Dr Michelle Telfer, a paediatrician and adolescent medicine physician who specialises in providing gender-affirming care to transgender young people, emphasised how important family is for the mental health of transgender children.

“Having a supportive family is the primary influence over the prognosis for transgender kids. For those who don’t have a supportive family, or where the parents disagree on the need to acknowledge and support their child’s gender identity, the outcomes are quite poor,” Telfer said.

Nicholas explained the high risk of harm faced by transgender young people, including research showing that around 80 percent of trans kids under 25 have self-harmed and almost half have attempted suicide.

“Trans kids are 15 times more likely to self-harm than the general population,” Nicholas said.

Seeking help and inner critics

Speakers also discussed the importance of seeking help to deal with both external and internal criticism.

Bowditch recounted her experience with anxiety, fuelled by multiple traumas, including the death of her sister and the stigma associated with not having a body shape that met “acceptable” standards for that time.

One practical tool Bowditch found useful was the book ‘Complete Self-Help for Your Nerves’ by Dr Clare Weekes‘ whose message “to be kind to yourself, be hopeful and keep things simple” was exactly what Bowditch needed to hear.

She also discussed her strategy of giving her anxiety a name – in her case “Frank” – which allowed her to tell “Frank” where to go when required (also acknowledging that this is not a long-term solution).

Bowditch had some suggestions for participants wanting to tame their inner critic, reassuring them that it can be done, although she stressed that this doesn’t happen overnight.

These included identifying and naming self-doubts as well as finding light-hearted ways to tell an inner critic to go away. She also discussed finding an “inner champion” or listening to an uplifting song – Bowditch has a playlist that she has put together for this purpose.

Telfer discussed her experience as a target of a Murdoch media campaign against the gender-affirming health care she provided at her Royal Children’s Hospital clinic.

The hate campaign experienced by Telfer came on top of the challenges she was already facing during the pandemic as the clinical and research programs she managed expanded to meet rising demand for trans-medicine in children and adolescents.

Telfer outlined the key messages from the 45 articles written about her during this period which questioned her credibility, honestly and expertise, and failed to mention that she was an internationally recognised expert on transgender medicine with significant academic and research experience.

She said that she believed that the campaign was run to create fear and anxiety and exacerbate prejudice and stigma experienced by transgender youth.

This undermined the trust that patients and families of the clinic had in their doctors and also deterred people from seeking care.

Adding to the distress experienced by her, her family, her team and the Royal Children’s Hospital management was the knowledge that this was impacting transgender youth and families as it questioned their right to live as transgender.

While ultimately Telfer was vindicated when the Australian Press Council found that The Australian had breached three of its guiding principles in their reporting on this issue, her mental health suffered from receiving hate mail, social media trolling, abusive phone calls and harassment.

She encouraged conference attendees to pay more attention to their own wellbeing in situations of professional and personal pressure rejecting the adage that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

“Actually, whatever doesn’t kill you gives you trauma symptoms,” Telfer said.

Outside of her professional role as a doctor, Telfer has promoted the need for greater media diversity, including providing a submission to the recent Senate Inquiry into Media Diversity.

The conference also heard about the risks that leaders can take when challenging the status quo.

Dr Kedar Mate, President and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, discussed the experiences of colleagues in the US who identified racial inequities in access to specialised inpatient heart failure care at a medical centre.

When they developed a program to ensure that Black and Latino patients received the same standard of care as the white population, the doctors were targeted by White Supremacists who threatened them and the hospital.

Mate stressed the need for more support for healthcare workers to speak out where they see injustice and inequity, particularly given the differential impact of the pandemic on people already disadvantaged.

“Over the past few years we have heard many stories of courage from healthcare workers –we need that and more for what lies ahead,” he said.