Lessons from the Boardroom with mental health advocate Jenny Smith

Growing up in a family with mental illness and experiencing bullying at school, WOB member Jenny Smith experienced a difficult childhood. The Sydney local said she first began to experience signs of depression and anxiety when she had to change schools at the end of year 10. After leaving school she endured long periods of unemployment but completed courses and took part in volunteer work to better her chances. 

Today Jenny is a respected member of the mental health sector and draws on her lived experience of mental illness to work with organisations that have a direct influence on mental health policy.

In 2022 Jenny secured a position on the Country Executive Committee for the Global Mental Health Peer Network - an international organisation that builds capacity among people with lived experience of a mental health condition through empowerment, mentorship and support. 

She was also named Burwood Council Adult Volunteer of the Year in 2021 and was one of three local leaders voted as Westfield Local Heroes for Burwood in 2020, for her work as a volunteer youth mentor with the Raise Foundation, helping students overcome their barriers by sharing her own story of overcoming adversity, including anxiety and depression.

As she says: “I love inspiring and encouraging others”.

How has your own experience of mental illness led to committee and board roles?

I feel my strength is bringing my lived experience of mental illness (psychosocial disability) to boards and committees. 

Lived experience is a person’s firsthand experience of mental health challenges and their journey of recovery. We provide different insights, perspectives and expertise that can help guide organisations’ work in such areas as policy reform and service design.

For me, it’s about breaking down the stigma of mental illness through education and sharing the knowledge I have of the challenges faced by people with a disability/mental health conditions.

What inspired you to start getting involved with organisations and committees?

In 2015 I decided I wanted to help people who live with mental illness, including my sister, so I took it upon myself to get involved in consumer advocacy. I completed some advocacy training and learned about the opportunities that are available to me and decided to give it a go.

As well as being on the Country Exective Committee for the Global Mental Health Peer Network, I also work with Central Eastern Sydney Primary Health Network (CESPHN) on its Community Council and Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Advisory Committee. 

I am also on the Lived Experience Advisory Panel with Sydney Local Health District, a Lived Experience Advocacy Delegate with the National Primary Health Network’s Mental Health Lived Experience Engagement Network and on the Lived Experience Panel of Suicide Prevention Australia.

In addition I have also been a director on the board of One Door Mental Health (formerly Schizophrenia Fellowship of NSW) - and am now on its Consumer Consultative Committee - and currently work on the Project Codesign Committee of the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia. 

I have also been part of a working group to help co-design a Community Education Engagement Package for the Mental Health Coordinating Council, to help community workers, volunteers and peers better support people living with a psychosocial disability or mental health condition. 

Has living with a mental illness helped or hindered your work on committees and boards?

I think my experience has taught me a lot about herself. I think to survive a mental illness you need courage, resilience and perseverance as well as a good support network. Today I am generally well and I am a survivor of mental illness. But having a mental illness is only one part of me. I should be recognised and acknowledged and treated as an equal, just like everyone else in the community.

What do you most like about your roles and working with others on committees?

I like learning more about the organisation, making new connections and having opportunities to be involved in other projects.

Have you had mentors and if so, how have they helped you?

Yes I have had mentors who have been very supportive of me. They listen, they care and encourage me to keep doing the work I do. I consider myself to be very lucky because one opportunity has led to another and I’ve had fantastic support from everyone. My level of confidence has dramatically increased and I`m doing things now that I never thought I could or would do. 

How has WOB helped you on your board journey?

I’m relatively new to Women on Boards, but WOB has given me the opportunity to take part in this piece about myself so I hope it inspires more people to get involved. 

I enjoy networking and also find that WOB’s courses and workshops are helpful in expanding my skills and knowledge base. I particularly like listening to the podcasts as they are very easy to listen to in the background when you are doing other work.

I would also like to take on more committees and boards in the future in the mental health sector, so hope WOB can help facilitate that.