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Digital skills training breaks down barriers and transforms lives

Dante (centre) with New Horizon Project Coordinator Kirsten (left) and MHCC digital trainer Ellie at Digital Skills for Living

When Dante first downloaded WhatsApp to his phone a long stream of photographs and messages from extended family flooded into his feed. For years gaps in his digital literacy meant Dante missed out on this meaningful connection with family.

Among the images that arrived were heartbreaking ones he had never seen before of his recently deceased grandfather.

“I really value that I’ve been able to come along and learn these skills,” Dante says. “It’s been an enormous support and comfort for me.”

The Digital Skills for Living program run by Mental Health Coordinating Council in collaboration with community-managed mental health organisations is where Dante learnt how to use WhatsApp, along with a range of other digital skills for communicating, shopping and accessing services.

New Horizon’s Project Coordinator Kirsten Cameron who supports Dante in Sydney’s inner west says gaps in digital experience and knowledge are an issue faced by many people living with a severe or ongoing mental health condition, and the COVID-19 pandemic only amplified the disparity.

“What COVID-19 showed us was that governments and authorities assumed that everyone is digitally savvy, but that’s not the case for many people and they miss out on access to services and opportunities afforded to others,” Kirsten explained.

“It takes a lot of courage to admit you have this gap. I’m extremely proud of the work people have been doing to bring their digital skills up to speed.”

Mission Australia’s Acting Senior Recovery Case Worker Isaac Alam supports the program in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and considers digital knowhow a basic living skill, equipping people to stay connected and build independence.

“Part of recovery is learning to be independent and develop skills for yourself. Digital literacy training has given our clients these valuable new skills,” Isaac said. “Before the training, if our clients had follow-up appointments via Zoom we’d have to support them in the consult. Now they can do it alone.”

The Digital Skills for Living project developed by Mental Health Coordinating Council provides training opportunities for consumers accessing the Housing and Accommodation Support Initiative and Community Living Support programs to improve their basic digital literacy.

Free one-on-one and group workshops were held across New South Wales to build skills and confidence around technology and reduce barriers to accessing online services.

Technology weaves through all our lives, so the digital training has had widespread impact across many aspects of peoples’ lives, not least is the forging of social connections.

“It’s reduced the participants’ isolation enormously,” Kirsten said. “For some people not being able to use technology meant they missed out on the limited opportunities they were offered for social engagements.

“Connecting digitally has made a huge difference to their lives.”

Digital skills awaken the author in Saskia

Saskia knows she has lived a life worth documenting, but having never owned or even used a computer, and with no one to teach her, she was unable to tell her story.

Digital Skills for Living transformed Saskia’s digital skills and now she is expertly halfway through writing an autobiography of her remarkable life.

“Before the course I knew I wanted to improve my skills,” she explained, “but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now I eagerly await the possibilities.”

Through the training Saskia has developed new technical skills and confidence which have enabled many other significant developments in her life.

Saskia is now shopping online, a useful skill for when her mental health condition impacts her social confidence, she has found new ways to connect socially and is accessing specialist medical appointments online.

“This has opened up my world,” Saskia said. “It’s given me increased confidence, excitement and greater hope.”

Friendships forged through digital connection

Miranda and Nerida joined the Digital Skills for Living program to increase their confidence in technology, but along the way found the connections have extended into a supportive friendship.

With one other friend, Miranda and Nerida now use WhatsApp, which they learnt to download and use through the program, to make appointments to see each other and get together for shopping and coffee.

These in person and online connections are building a safety net which they employ to stay in touch with each other if their mental health deteriorates.

“In the group, one of our friends’ mental health has deteriorated,” Miranda explained. “Now we’re able to use WhatsApp to keep in contact and to try and keep their spirits up.”

“It’s also good to have a notion to get up and to do something, that is a positive thing,” Miranda said.

“It’s brought us together, it given us our independence, and it’s good fun,” Nerida enthuses.

Unconventional job description for digital trainers

Dedicated MHCC trainer Winston jokes that being a Millennial is the key job requirement for teaching digital skills.

If the task is to instill confidence in digital skills, then who better to do that than a tech savvy Millennial. Winston and the other enthusiastic trainers in the Digital Skills for Living program have great digital know-how, but more importantly they possess a motivation and passion to breach the digital gap for people left out.

“The internet is only 30 years old,” Winston points out, “and it’s been advancing very quickly in that time. Lots of people have been left in the dust, there’s lots of gaps in knowledge.

Digital Skills for Living allows me to reach people with information, to make people feel comfortable with the technology and provide immensely useful information.”

The training has had a profound change in Winston’s own life, securing full time employment in the mental health sector.

“It’s helped me work out what I want to do. This job in mental health is so important, and it helped me figure out where I wanted to go as a career.”

Winston recently applied for and was appointed as a Support Worker with Neami National. We wish him well.

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