This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating women who are making a difference to the mental wellbeing of others. The Blackmores Mercie Whellan Women+Wellbeing awards recognise women across Australia who have made an outstanding contribution to their local community by improving the mental health and wellbeing of others.
Congratulations to our 2021 winners – Jo Westh, Founder of 4 Voices, Fatima Merchant, Mental Health Youth Ambassador, and Margie Bestmann, Mental Health Advocate. You can read more about them below.
Between them, they've won $10,000 to donate to a registered charity of their choice and are invited to to join the Leader’s Room brought to you by CCNB. This leadership program is designed to support women in getting to their next level of community success.
As Australia’s leading natural health company, Blackmores takes a holistic wellness approach that recognises the importance of both a healthy body and a healthy mind.
Support for mental health and emotional wellbeing is an area of great need in today’s world with growing concerns about managing stress, anxiety and depression. 2020 was a year like no other, with the global COVID-19 pandemic changing the way we live, work and socially interact with others.
At Blackmores we want to celebrate IWD by acknowledging women across Australia who have shown outstanding leadership in supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Blackmores runs this award annually in partnership with CCNB, trusted advisors in community health, aged care and disability. Community organisations like CCNB play an essential role in supporting physical, mental, social and emotional wellbeing, helping to ensure that everyone can live their life to the fullest.
Our 2021 winners' stories and the work they do to support mental wellbeing is truly awe-inspiring.
We received hundreds of awe-inspiring submissions from across the country. To everyone who was nominated, thank you for all that you do to support mental wellbeing in your community. And to those who nominated, thank you for celebrating women’s achievements – we all rise by lifting others.
We hope you are as inspired as we are by our winners' stories of helping others.
Winner | Mercie Whellan Award
Jo Westh is passionate about helping marginalised women find their voice.
‘Connecting Girls and Women Seeking Change’ is written large on the side of the 4 Voices purple van which frequents the streets and laneways of disadvantaged areas of Brisbane. The van is aptly named Aurora, meaning dawn, or new beginnings, ‘precisely what we try to help women achieve’,” Jo said.
“1 in 200 Australians are homeless and two-thirds of women who find themselves in this situation have fled a violent relationship.
“We go to places where women are in crisis, firstly offering a cup of tea and a chat. Many of these women find themselves disconnected from society and without access to the community services designed to support them. Our role is to bridge that gap.”
“Over the past 12 months, 4 Voices has trained 120 volunteers and provided assistance to over 4000 women.
“4 Voices was launched on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2020, and just one week later, Brisbane went into lockdown. We had to quickly adapt and figure out how else to connect with people in need.
“In addition to the mobile van, we offer phone counselling support and regularly visit women’s refuges and aged care homes. We also partner with the Centrelink offices in Ipswich and Logan to provide support where needed.
4 Voices provides women with four types of connection:
Social - Women in crisis have often been living in difficult circumstances for some time. It is not uncommon for them to be alone, without the support of friends and family. This social isolation has worsened with COVID. These women really value having a non-judgemental chat which can often lead to deeper conversations.
Digital - Many women who are homeless or escaping domestic violence don’t have access to technology. Our van is equipped with Wi-Fi, and all the office equipment needed to access the digital world. Women may just want to connect with family and friends via social media or they may need help navigating MyGov and completing online forms. This is particularly an issue for women from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Employment - Often we park outside Centrelink offices and talk to women about finding work. We can help spruce up resumes and show them how to search SEEK and other online job boards.
Referral - The social services system can be hard to navigate. Aside from all the forms you are required to complete, every attempt to access services (mental health, legal aid, employment support, crisis payments) requires you to tell your story over and over again. We often accompany women to these meetings and help them navigate what is often a confronting process.
“We park outside Centrelink offices, providing a non-threatening place for women to come for a cup of tea and a chat.
“One day a woman approached us and asked what we were all about. Over a cup of coffee she revealed that she had escaped an abusive relationship and had been living under a bridge for two weeks. She had fled with the clothes on her back and was in a pretty shabby state. I asked if she was heading into Centrelink to organise crisis support and she said, ‘No way... I can’t walk in there looking like this’.
“I offered to go in with her and within two hours we had organised crisis payments, a mobile phone and a place to stay. A couple of days later she came back to thank us and she looked like a different person,” Jo said.
“Another woman approached us and said, ‘I understand you can help me with my resume’.
“She had lost her job due to COVID. Her husband was stuck in Ethiopia and she had three children to support. She had good spoken English but her written ability wasn’t great. We spruced up her resume, set her up with a SEEK account and helped her with eight job applications. The following week she came back and said she had got a job at the hospital. This was so great for her self-esteem and her family. With employment she could also sponsor her husband to enter the country!
“It is an absolute privilege to get up in the morning and know today I have the chance to turn somebody’s life around!” Jo said.
Winner | Open Category
When Margie Bestmann’s husband died as a consequence of mental illness in 2016 the whole rural community was rocked by shock and grief.
Mark Bestmann had lived and worked in the rural far north Queensland town of Mareeba for 30 years. As a local GP he touched everybody’s life, from delivering babies through to caring for the frail aged – all while silently struggling with his own mental illness.
“Mark suffered from non-melancholic depression. Although he had challenging periods, he sought to find joy in the everyday. Mark was committed to caring for his patients and for him work was the best medicine,” Margie said.
When Mark died by suicide in 2016 the community of Mareeba was shattered.
“People were in disbelief. No one could understand how this could have happened. I spent so much time talking to people, explaining Mark’s struggle with mental illness. I could see there was a great need to build mental health awareness in our community,” Margie said.
“The Church was overflowing at Mark’s funeral so I used the Eulogy as an opportunity to help people understand Mark’s journey. Two months later I worked collaboratively with local organisations to host a community mental health information night. In addition to health professionals, I told Mark’s story and was joined by four local people who shared their own experiences. This was very powerful. I look back on these two events as being positive catalysts for change,” Margie said.
Over the past five years Margie has worked tirelessly to create awareness and understanding about mental wellbeing. She has established a health and wellbeing support group in conjunction with the local community centre, and organises annual mental health first aid courses through Rotary.
The biannual North Queensland Rotary Field Days are a massive event, attracting 24,000 people over three days. In 2017 Margie introduced a ‘Health and Wellbeing’ hub bringing together a range of health service providers under one roof. Student doctors from James Cook University assisted Mareeba Community Health Nurses to provide free men’s health checks and Mareeba Community Centre distributed free sample bags full of information about mental health support services.
While Margie has made great inroads in opening up the discussion about mental wellbeing in her community she places important value on the work she does with young people.
“Mark had delivered and been the family doctor for many of the students at the local high school so when he died there was a strong sense of grief amongst the school community.
“Young people have a real openness to accepting mental health problems as just another form of illness to be managed and treated. I am motivated to equip young people with the information they need to recognise early signs of mental illness in themselves or their friends and family.”
Margie has spoken at school assemblies and supported local student councils to host mental health awareness weeks. A video produced by Year 12 students at Mareeba High School has been shared widely on social media and is used as a training tool for medical students at James Cook University.
“Mark loved his profession and became adept at helping people with anxiety, depression and mood disorders. He cared for so many people and saved so many lives. In some small way I hope I am continuing his work,” Margie said.
Winner | Youth Category
Fatima Merchant’s journey as a Youth Mental Health Ambassador began in 2019 when she joined 40 students from across Western Australia (WA) at ‘Camp Hero’ to learn how to be positive advocates for mental wellbeing in their local communities.
“At the time many of my friends were starting to have struggles with the pressures of senior high school, so I was inspired to start this conversation and strengthen the support we offered within our school community,” Fatima said.
As Head Girl at Perth Modern School, Fatima wanted to broaden the discussion. She organised a ‘Leading Together Forum’ to empower and further equip school leaders from Years 10 to 12. Following the success of the event, she began working on extending the Forum to high schools across Perth.
“I was pleased to be able to bring together youth leaders and mental health experts from across the community to ignite the mental wellbeing discussion within my school – particularly in relation to the uncertainty caused by COVID and how social isolation has affected us all.
“Our school’s student leaders feel empowered to make a difference and as a first priority we relaunched our Student Wellbeing space on the school intranet to ensure the availability of a diverse range of mental health and COVID-19 resources tailored specifically for young people.
“As a Student Leader I am fortunate to be well known in the school community and am always available for a chat. Sometimes all we need is to be heard.
“Social media can be a real source of anxiety for many students. I believe we need to take personal responsibility for creating an online space where we feel safe. If you are comparing yourself to others then maybe you need to re-consider. It can be empowering to stop following accounts that bring you down,” Fatima said.
In addition to her work with Camp Hero, Fatima is also an active member of Prevent Support Heal, sitting on their Youth Steering Committee, as well as the Policy and Education sub-committees. Last month she MC’d their Youth Mental Health Virtual Rally attended by 50 young people across WA.
“Through my health advocacy work I am really struck by the positive change that can be achieved through legislative reform.
“I would like to see more Government resources dedicated to preventing mental health disorders at a community level. For instance, in my area, Head Space provides a great free counselling service for young people, but it only operates four days a week during school hours.
“I also think we should look at how we can use pre-existing community organisations like sporting clubs, libraries and schools to provide mental health resources and create a welcoming space for people seeking social connection,” Fatima said.