For Curtin social work graduate Leanne Mirabella, going to work is more than just a means to pay the bills. Powered by the desire to see society become fairer and more equitable, Leanne is passionate about changing the lives: individual-by-individual, family-by-family, community-by-community.
“I wanted to help people,” Leanne says. “Originally I was going to do law, but I came across a human rights activist, who was also my English tutor at Tuart College, and he taught me that I could find social justice through social work.”
Over the course of her career, Leanne has worked in a range of jobs to meet this calling. Her roles have included policy officer, welfare worker, health promotion officer, project officer and manager, counsellor, and social worker in hospital emergency wards, aged care, psychiatry and rehabilitation.
With this track record and her most recent roles as a counsellor in the Alcohol and Drug Support Service (ADSS) and project manager with the wellbeing organisation Palmerston Association, it comes as no surprise that Leanne was awarded a 2015 WA Social Worker of the Year Award in the ‘Agent of Change’ category.
In particular, it was Leanne’s work at Palmerston Association and her role in starting up peer facilitated SMART recovery groups in Perth that led the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) to select her as the ‘Agent of Change’ recipient.
SMART recovery groups are for people who suffer from co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues. In a supportive group environment, members are encouraged to set goals and challenge each other to change their strategies and approach to goal setting. The aim of SMART recovery is to help individuals gain control over their behaviours and thoughts, achieve a balanced lifestyle and lead meaningful lives.
“Through Leanne’s efforts, peer led SMART Groups are now a service in Perth … where peer group facilitators draw on their lived experience for the benefit of group members,” reads the nomination from AASW.
Leanne believes that communities are as important as individuals when it comes to helping others.
“I sincerely believe social work is such a wonderful profession because of how it focuses on community as well as the individual,” Leanne says. “These [SMART] groups are going to make a huge impact on the wellbeing of carers and consumers with mental health and substance use issues. The results are already amazing.”
Graduating with honours in social work in 1995, Leanne uses the knowledge gained from her degree in everything she does. “From simple communication strategies to psychology, cultural awareness, family work, community development, policy and research – I have used it all in my 20 year career,” she says.
In fact, she lists studying to become a social worker as one of her greatest life achievements to date.
“I didn’t finish high school and come from a divorced family who had very little money,” she reflects. “University wasn’t really something on the cards for me when I was young, but after working in the banking industry I wanted to do more with my life. Although I have changed roles many times, I still regard myself as a social worker. It is a vocation and way of life.
“I seem to be always advocating for a cause somewhere, and it is usually because I feel I have to use my knowledge of the political and social justice system to at least do my little bit.”
One particular issue in her sights is the need to improve Perth’s mental health services. As a counsellor she frequently speaks to individuals and families who are in desperate need of immediate support for a mental health or substance use issue, often both.
“Even though there are waitlists at most services I try to at least give them hope that if they keep on trying, eventually they will be healthy again,” Leanne says. “It is why I am so pleased to see peer-led SMART recovery groups running across so many of Palmerston’s services. These groups are helping to fill the gap for a lot of people, and because they are peer led, many participants can be hopeful that like their peer group leader, they too can recover.”