Bronte Jefferies knows what it was like growing up with parents who suffer from mental illness.
The Victoria University student is now using her childhood experience to reach out and support young people, especially children, who are affected by parental mental illness and/or addiction.
"My parents have mental illness," Jefferies, 22, said. "That was how my interest was sparked."
The former Spotswood College student was also awarded a $6000 Freemasons Scholarship in recognition of her academic achievements and community contributions.
Jefferies' honours thesis is on recognising and supporting families dealing with mental illness.
She said children growing up in those homes often feel "isolated, vulnerable and invisible".
"We stay invisible out of fear from being taken away from our parents. Lots of kids get taken away from their parents," she said.
Children are afraid of opening up to their teachers or peers about their family issues for fear of being stigmatised.
"They're afraid of telling someone about it in case the person at the receiving end considers their family dangerous."
Youngsters also bottle up for fear of being labelled.
"We don't go ‘oh man, something really weird happened at home last night'," Jefferies said.
"We think our family are a bit weird anyway and we don't want people thinking our family are weirder."
But it does not have to be this way for people living with mental illness and their families, Jefferies said.
"We need to open the dialogue up about it, so there'll be less stigma and we'd have more support."
Two years ago, Jefferies launched Mindspace, a peer-led support group providing education and support for families experiencing mental health or addiction issues.
Mindspace works in partnership with the Family Mental Health adviser at the Capital and Coast District Health Board.
Jefferies hopes to one day take Mindspace to universities and high schools to let students know there are supports in place for them.
"We can't get rid of mental illness, it's part of life," she said. "But we can get rid of these dangerous and scary ideas around them so the kids who really, really need some help, will get it."
Despite her relatively tough childhood, Jefferies said she would not change her family circumstances for anything.
"My parents are the most beautiful, kind people, who love me, and it [mental illness] was something they never asked for."
- Taranaki Daily News
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