ermha365 CEO Blog

ermha365 CEO Karenza Louis-Smith is a passionate social justice advocate. Her blog tackles a range of issues including stigma and social justice for people with mental illness and disability, the closure of asylums, and the need for better jobs and employment opportunities.


Getting help for your mental health during COVID-19

27 May 2020

In mid-May, the Prime Minister announced that the government has appointed the country’s first deputy chief medical officer for mental health, Associate Professor Dr Ruth Vine, formerly the Chief Psychiatrist of Victoria.

Elevating mental health to a ‘tier one issue’ within government is the clearest acknowledgement we’ve had so far that there is widespread concern that the mental health effects of the pandemic may be even deeper, last longer and be more challenging to manage than the physical health effects.

At ermha365, we have a long history of helping people who experience episodic and long-term mental health issues.

This is complex and challenging work, and there isn’t a one-size solution for everyone.

For example, we know that for some people, events like COVID-19 can result in them withdrawing from their regular mental health supports even though they may need them more than ever. These people need assertive outreach to help them stay engaged.

In contrast, others may actually find it easier to engage with support through Telehealth (telephone or video appointments, email, or text) because they reduce practical barriers to participation, such as the need for transportation, as well as some psychological barriers, such as the need to invite a support worker into their home or to meet new people in a group setting.

If you know someone who needs support for their mental health – particularly if it is something they have struggled with even before COVID-19, or they have an underlying mental health condition, or the advice that’s widely available just doesn’t seem to make a difference for them – then ermha365 can help.

We are open for new referrals into our mental health programs, including our Psychosocial Support Services (PSS) program, which offers short-term mental health support to build peoples’ capacity and connectedness at times when it is most needed.

This week on our GET REAL podcast, Getting Help For Your Mental Health During COVID-19, I talked to Shandya and Shyleen, a consumer and PSS support worker, about how getting support through PSS has helped Shandya to manage depression, set new goals for her life, and realise that she is much stronger and more resourceful than she believed she was. Shandya admits that she put off seeking support for a long time, because she was ashamed to ask for help – but it was the best thing she ever did.

The PSS program provides mental health support across a wide catchment area in South Eastern Melbourne that stretches from St Kilda to Sorrento to Bunyip, including the major population hubs of Clayton, Dandenong, Moorabbin, Caulfield, Cranbourne, Frankston and Pakenham. To access the PSS program, contact SEMPHN Access & Referral on 1800 862 363 (8.30am-4.30pm weekdays) or visit the SEMPHN website and download the referral form – https://www.semphn.org.au/resources/access.html#referralpss


Telehealth: delivering mental health support in a time of social distancing

13 May 2020

Now, more than ever, people need support with their mental health, and services like ermha365 have needed to find new and innovative ways to continue to provide mental health support while maintaining social distancing.

We have now moved most of our mental health services to telehealth, providing support through scheduled telephone or video appointments, by email, or through unscheduled welfare checks by phone or text.

This means that everything our mental health support workers and peer workers were doing face-to-face, or in-person, before COVID-19, they are now doing via telehealth – bringing some welcome, and sometimes unexpected, benefits.

For example, our Psychosocial Support Services (PSS) team offers short-term mental health support to build peoples’ capacity and connectedness at times when it is most needed.

The PSS team reports that some people with mental health issues are actually feeling more comfortable to connect to group or 1-1 supports by phone, Zoom or email, than to access them in person. For some people, traditional groups can bring up feelings of anxiety about meeting new people, needing to be social, or being in an unfamiliar physical space. Now, we are receiving feedback from consumers who find Zoom groups a ‘gentler’ way to engage in group support, because they are able to turn off their camera and microphone and get a feel for the group first, something they haven’t been able to do before.

Jess, a support worker in our PSS program, tells me that COVID-19 has also helped to break down barriers between the people we support and the workers who are providing that support. Because we are all in this together, many of the people we support are actually feeling less isolated than they did before we were all isolated – which is very welcome news.

Telehealth offers new and exciting opportunities to help even more people with their mental health than ever before.

The technologies for telehealth have existed for some time, but with limited uptake before COVID-19. In the United States for example, until recently, only 1 in 150 doctor visits and only one in every 5,000-10,000 specialist visits were conducted via telehealth.  It’s likely that COVID-19 will permanently change these numbers – for the better.

As our experience has shown, telehealth isn’t just a clinical model for health support. It can also be a community model, enabling consumers to access personalised mental health support and welfare checks to make sure they are travelling okay through the pandemic, and beyond.

You can hear Jess and other members of our team talk about telehealth in the Episode 4 of our podcast, GET REAL: Talking Mental Health and Disability.

For support with your mental health:

In Geelong/Barwon, contact the Access Team at Barwon Health Mental Health Drug and Alcohol Services (MHDAS) on 03 4215 0000 for an assessment. A Mental Health Community Clinician (case manager) then makes the referral to ermha365.


How Virtual Reality is helping the actual reality of training workers to provide psychosocial disability support

29 April 2020

Long before COVID-19 brought an overlay of social distancing and a hyper-focus on hygiene into our daily lives, the ermha365 workforce was dealing with other fundamental, daily challenges.

What’s the best way to support people with a significant mental disorder and complex needs? How do you react when someone you’re working with shows challenging behaviours, like self-harm and violence? What is the best way to help someone with a psychosocial disability to find their voice, make their choices, and thrive?

While the NDIS has brought many exciting opportunities to people with disabilities, it has also presented a few challenges to our workforce.

One challenge is that the transition of psychosocial disability support to the NDIS unfortunately brought with it a loss of skilled and experienced support workers in the sector. At the same time that the NDIS was changing the nature and context of this work, new workers entering the sector were finding themselves with limited opportunities to learn from more experienced practitioners.

ermha365 recognised these challenges early, and last year the ermha365 Academy was delighted to be awarded a Victorian government grant to deliver an innovative training project that we believe will change the face of psychosocial disability education.

In partnership with Wodonga TAFE and Mental Health Victoria, our team is working on a range of training resources, including a suite of Videos, Podcasts and Virtual Reality (VR) Simulations, that are integrated into National Competencies for vocational education.  By using these resources and creating immersive VR experiences to stimulate emotional and experiential learning, new workers will be better equipped to handle the challenges of psychosocial disability support in the NDIS environment.

In the current episode of GET REAL, ermha365’s podcast, we talk to Ellen Maple from ermha365 and Thomas MacNamara from Lightweave about why virtual reality is shaping up to be a game changer, helping trainees to practice and integrate new skills in a safe environment – and much more quickly than other training methods.

We are looking for people who want to get involved with this project, whether that’s by sharing your stories of providing effective support, being part of our virtual reality user trials program, or having your workforce trained at low-cost during our formal evaluation with Monash University. For more information, contact the ermha365 Academy team on 1300 376 421 or email training@ermha.org


ermha365’s response to COVID-19

15 April 2020

As an organisation delivering essential services for people with complex mental health conditions and disabilities, ermha365 is committed to continuing to support our participants and stakeholders through this very difficult and unprecedented time.

Our services remain open and fully operational, and we are open for referrals for NDIS Direct Support services and Coordination of Support services. Regular updates to our support strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.

Mental Health and community services

All clinical and NGO state funded mental health services are considered essential services and at this time, even more than ever, the provision of mental health treatment and care to consumers and families/carers is imperative.

With the full support of the State Government, we have moved a number of our community based Mental Health Services to a telehealth model of care. We are now providing direct support through telephone, video and virtual support groups for people with mental illness in the community.

Our support includes helping people understand COVID-19, what to do and how we can help them, as well as strategies to maintain good mental health in this time of crisis and uncertainty. In addition, our staff are supporting vulnerable people who are self-isolating to access home deliveries for food and emergency relief, including basic food and sanitary items for participants that are struggling. For people with the most complex functional support needs, the ermha365 team will continue to provide face to face support.

Support being delivered by telehealth include:

  • Mental health support and referral services
  • Mental health brief interventions, online groups and individual supports
  • Support for carers
  • Support for people living in SRS accommodation
  • Support for rough sleepers and people at risk of homelessness
NDIS Services

ermha365 considers our NDIS services supporting people with complex mental health and disabilities to be an essential service at this time.

The ermha365 team continues to provide Supported Independent Living (SIL), Community services, Behaviour Support and Coordination of Support.

We are working around the clock to ensure some of the most vulnerable people with disabilities are supported during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have developed individualised plans that are focused on what participants might require to keep them well though this health crisis, and we have prepared detailed work instructions for times when people in our care may become unwell.

  • Direct support will continue for ermha365 clients in the NDIS, including face to face support in their homes and in our 24/7 SIL programs
  • A safety questionnaire will be completed prior to all direct support work to ascertain risk, before we “in reach” into a person’s home
  • If our support workers become unwell or need to isolate, we will provide direct support by substituting an alternative worker
  • Personal Protective equipment will be issued to our staff in all suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 where the person has been identified by medical practitioner and health services staff to be well enough to be cared for in their home.
  • We will have capacity for all participant needs, and we are remaining open for new referrals.
An option for NDIS clients to choose Telehealth Support
  • New telephone / tele health support can be offered to our NDIS clients who would prefer to receive support in this way, or through a mix of face to face and telephone supports
  • Normal support hours can be rapidly made available by phone or online as required by our participants
  • We are willing and able to adjust supports rapidly at the request of our participants

For more information on ermha365’s NDIS services, or to make a referral, contact our Intake team on 1300 376 421.


Looking after yourselves and each other right now is so important.

These are challenging times. It’s very natural for people to be feeling concerned and worried. I really can’t remember a time in my life when I have felt so uncertain. But what I am certain about is right now, more than ever before, is that now is the time we must reach out and support each other.

Some people will be worrying about family members who may be in higher risk groups, their children and themselves. Others may be worrying about things like sick leave, food shortages, no toilet rolls, and lock downs like we see on the news in other countries. These are unprecedented times for all of us.

At the same time, so many of the face-to-face interactions that give shape to our everyday lives are being put on hold, or shut down. Many Australians are now working from home.  Public events have been cancelled.  Some schools have closed, and more will follow.  Aged care homes – where many of us have aged parents or grandparents – are moving to lockdown.  We’re probably more likely to be spending our day engaging with social media and the news about the impact and disruption of COVID-19. 

Social distancing, for many, is hard. It’s lonely and it’s scary. Many of the people we work with at ermha who have mental health issues and disabilities will be feeling this.  Its likely that our families, friends, children and neighbours will be feeling this too.

What we CAN do, and what we DO have control over is how we treat and look out for each other. Now is the time for us all to come together, and to look out for and support each other. Reaching out to your support networks, our neighbours, friends and family.

It’s important to ask, Are you OK? – now more than ever.

Pick up the phone and call someone, make a time to chat with each other. Use social media to connect. Find new ways to stay connected.

Things you can do to support yourself and the people we work with, as well as your own network of family and friends:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
  • Take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. You don’t have to do this face to face, use the phone, video calls, what’s app, messenger etc…
  • Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed, or concerned that COVID-19 is affecting your ability to care for your family and clients as you did before the outbreak.

At ermha365, we are working very hard to keep our staff safe and healthy so that we can continue to operate our essential Disability and Mental Health community and residential services.  At the same time, we’re grappling with the challenges providing 24/7 services, having to move some of our community mental health services to a tele health model of support, and more people working from home and what that means.

Finally, I want to say I’m so impressed and inspired by the commitment of our workers and the flexibility across the entire ermha365 team as we work to ensure our services are maintained. Thank-you everyone. We will get through this…. together.


Social justice – why we should act every day, not just today! (February 2020)

Today is the world day of social justice 2020 where people all over the globe will be shining a spotlight on closing the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice.

The United Nations World Day of Social Justice is held every year on February 20 and encourages people to look at how social justice can help change the world, and the lives of people, for the better. The focus is on improving living standards while at the same time addressing serious challenges like financial crises, insecurity, poverty, exclusion and inequality.

So why does it matter?

When it comes to what is fair, everyone should be able to access the basic things they need to live a good life. Things like access to food, shelter, and clean water. Friends, family and people who love and care for you. Education, a job, an income. The opportunity to participate, to be included. Here in Australia, these things are often taken for granted by many of us, but for some people, there are gaps.

At ermha365 we know from experience that too often in Australia people experiencing mental illness and people with a disability face stigma, discrimination and barriers that restrict them from participating in society on an equal basis with others.

 When ‘Emma’ (not her real name) was diagnosed with schizophrenia a doctor told her she would be “better off with cancer because it was easier to cure”. People wouldn’t employ her because “she didn’t meet what they were looking for” or she was considers to be “too difficult” in the workplace. 

And Emma is not alone.

‘Mark’, who was born with an intellectual disability, experienced inappropriate jokes, insults and name-calling when he went to school. Hoping this would change when Mark was shocked to find it still existed widely in the local community where he lived.

Worse still, is the over-representation of people with mental illness and disability in the justice system. The 2012 Legal Australia-Wide survey found that people with a mental illness or disability were more than twice as likely to experience legal problems. They are also more likely to experience multiple legal problems and have difficulty resolving them. Is this right? Is this fair? At ermha365 we see to many people with a Mental Illness or Disability who have found themselves ‘warehoused’ in Jail…. too often because there is no where else for them to go.

At ermha365 we have a vision that things can and will be different. It’s clear that as a society we need to find a better way of thinking about mental health and disability. We believe that it starts with a focus on the whole person.

We need to continue to co design and develop appropriate community-based care and holistic solutions that take social, economic, and cultural factors into account and ensure that everyone has equitable access to services they need, when they need it.

 That way we can achieve real social justice including:

  • Community belonging and participation; and the opportunity to thrive and become part of a community of choice with friends, meaningful activities and a real sense of belonging.
  • Health, wellbeing and recovery; with a focus on improving social and emotional wellbeing, developing ongoing support networks, feeling positive about self and what can be achieved in the community.
  • Rights, respect, choice and control; supporting people to find and raise their voices and take ownership of their lives, treatment and support.
  • A safe and stable home life: having a place to feel safe, stable and secure in the community.

At ermha365 we are making a difference! You can too!


Whatever happened to our asylums?

So, the word asylum conjures up many images, right? Most of them negative. You think refugees or the homes we used to place the mentally ill into, you know, the ones we (rightly) closed.

Yet when we look at the word today, and what it means… shelter or protection from danger… Why have we shifted away from creating safe places in the community for some of our most vulnerable people to live and to thrive? We closed the asylums, but did we have a vision with what we could or should replace them with?

The Victorian Ombudsman has just recently spoken about the jailing of a woman diagnosed with autism spectrum and pervasive developmental disorders for 18 months ” because there was nowhere for her to go” as ” the saddest case I have investigated in my time as Ombudsman“.

The woman in question was arrested in 2016 at her parents’ home and charged with breaching an intervention order and resisting police. Without suitable or appropriate accommodation and given her risk of reoffending, she was remanded in custody. She was subsequently found unfit to stand trial and not guilty because of her mental impairment. The ombudsman noted that she spent up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, would scream with distress and lost almost half her body weight while jailed for 16 months.

In her findings, Ombudsman Ms Glass recommends the winner of November’s state election invest in secure treatment facilities other than prison for people found unfit to stand trial or not guilty by way of mental impairment.

I couldn’t agree more.

At ermha365 we are passionate about working with people with mental disorders who should be living in the community. Vulnerable people who need to have shelter or protection from danger. Yet time and time again we find there is nowhere safe, or suitable to house them. The modern day alternatives, jails and locked wards are not the right option, yet we don’t have the right options in the community for some of the most vulnerable citizens in our communities. Its time for all of us to solve this problem.

Today Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a re-elected Labor Government will establish a Royal Commission into Mental Health, noting it will be the first of its kind in Australia, and work will begin within the first 100 days, including the appointment of Commissioners and the announcement of the Terms of Reference.

This excites me, because of the opportunities it brings to transform the way in which we approach the treatment and care of people living with mental disorders.

  • Its time for us as a society and as a community of professionals to be visionary.
  • Its time for us to be bold.

I believe we need to design a new modern concept of “asylum” for people with mental disorders. A new safe place, where human rights are at the forefront of design so that vulnerable Victorians have somewhere to live in the community where they can really thrive.


Jobs really do changes lives

Its November 1st today, and I can’t believe it but I have been the ermha365 CEO for 1 year today! I remember my first day coming in and meeting all of the team and in my first few weeks being so impressed by the passion that I saw in the people I met about the work ermha365 does. 

A year later, I still see, hear and feel that passion and commitment from everyone in the ermha team and I see it in our work. I believe that ermha365 is a really great place to work, to learn, to develop, to grow.  It’s also a great place to be at where you can make a difference in the lives of people who need our care and who need our support.

I think today about the consumers I have met, their stories, and how they are making changes. Changes with ermha365 people at their side. Assisting, supporting, believing in them. Wow.

The simple message I want to share today is the fact that the people at ermha change lives, they save lives, they help make lives better. They do this every day!  Its not just the front line staff at ermha either. It is the teams that support our people, who pay the bills, who keep the lights on, who maintain the cars, who recruit, train and support our teams on the ground. They absolutely are part of making a difference, and changing the world. 

Last month Deborah Glass in her role of the Victorian ombudsman published her findings into the incarceration of people with mental disorders and disabilities. Featured in all the media was the story of a 39 year old woman jailed for 16 months because “there was nowhere else for her to go”. Debra described her ordeal as the “saddest case I have seen in my time as ombudsman” describing how the woman lost half her body weight during her incarceration, and how a custodial setting breached her human rights.

Guess what. For exactly a year this woman has been an ermha365 client. She has been supported by a passionate team of ermha365 staff. She has lived independently in the community as opposed to being locked in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Yes, its not been easy for her care team. There have been challenges, issues and more challenges. But she has freedom. She has a better quality of life that she did in custody.

How many other stories do we have like this? People whose lives ermha365 has touched, help change in such a profound way? Hundreds and hundreds…

 Last year alone:

  • We supported more than 1,000 people living with mental illnesses across our programs to build a better quality of life
  • We provided more than 303 hours of support for carers in the community
  • 30 volunteers helped to support ermha365’s work
  • 27 students from Monash and Deakin did their placements here to learn and build their skills
  • Our client satisfaction with our support was 95%

Its amazing to be part of an organisation where together we are making a difference. Together, each day we help change the world in small ways, and in big ways for the people whose lives ermha365 touches.


Mental illness, homelessness…. and murder!

A lot has been written this week about the tragic and terrible murder of a young woman in a Melbourne park in both print and in social media.

A terrible, senseless death of a young woman, who should be able to be safe at night, in her home town. Out with friends.

I expected the commentary to be about finding out what had happened and working to prevent it happening again.

Instead most of the commentary has been around the individual circumstances of both people. Their homelessness, histories of mental illness, drug use and disabilities.  It seems the rhetoric has been to de-humanise the people involved. Find a way to say its OK, to accept it, to put it down to “issues”.

I have found it hard to find any description of either person that doesn’t draw upon the circumstances they found themselves in. The human story.

Instead we seem to be faced with a sea of “Nothing to see here!”

“We are not in the grip of a violence crisis in Australia”

“It’s the homelessness, mental health and drug use that’s the issue here”

“Not all men commit violence. We know violence against women is a problem. I don’t see how me reflecting on myself is going to stop women being bashed or murdered.”

The truth is there are different issues at play here. Do we have a housing crisis? Yes absolutely. Is our mental health system under unprecedented stress? Yes, and yes again. Is the rise of ICE a huge problem in our towns and cities? Undoubtedly. Should we be addressing and tackling these issues as a community? Without doubt.

Are they reason that justify a murder of a young woman? Do they excuse this man’s behaviours? Some how make them OK? Does this mean we just go on with our lives and not worry? Absolutely not.

The truth is:

  • On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
  • 1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15.
  • 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
  • 85% of Australian women have been sexually harassed.
  • 1 in 6 women have experienced stalking since the age of 15.

So come on social commentators, journalists, bloggers. Let’s address this problem as it is. People listen to you, and we all have a responsibility to lead change.


Building a purpose (written for Leadership Victoria)

I don’t really know how old I was when I knew I wanted to do something that could help change the world, something that could make a real difference, I just know I was young. That desire to be part of something, to lead change and see something better has been with me for as long as I can remember.

As a young person, I kind of lost my way, went off the tracks, failed high school and ended up working in a fish factory. It was making fish pate that was a defining moment in my life. I was up to my arms in a kipper mincing machine and asked myself “Was this what I wanted?” “Was this who I aspired to be?” “Where was the girl who wanted to change the world?” It was in that moment I decided to go back to school and repeat my final year, a tough choice, but the only choice for me.

That has stuck with me though out my career and I have never settled for “any job” I want an extraordinary job, with a remarkable organisation one that makes a real difference in the world – and I have been lucky to have found that throughout my career. I believe for purpose organisations influence shape and create social cohesion, they offer a sense of direction, and create meaning in our world.

As I look back at the girl in the fish factory, who she was and how she got there, and how one person believing in her was the change that she needed I learnt the value that one person can make the greatest difference.

For me, my values are at the centre of who I am and how I lead. Everyone deserves a second chance, and I want to see people have the opportunity to live life to their fullest potential. As a CEO of several for purpose organisations, I lead with passion and energy and a strong belief in humanity.   The organisations I have led work side by side with people experiencing mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, crime and incarceration. People who too often find themselves isolated, alone and on the outer. We believe in change, in hope and in recovery. Our strategies are creative and bold. We are here to lead and create change.

Folio has been a great experience for me in understanding my “true north” what drives me, and how I can harness this to help bring about even greater social change in the community. I have learnt that my passion and energy have been my greatest leadership assets throughout my career, helping me build a purpose, vision and a sense of unity in an organisation, taking people along on the journey of social change.  I have been able to add to my strengths though the Harthill’s experience and see areas of further growth for me personally which will, I believe lead to even greater societal and social impact.

One person can make a difference and together a for purpose organisation can make an impact!