Toowoomba resident and long-term mental health advocate Michael Burge OAM has been elected to the board of the World Federation for Mental Health.
Toowoomba resident and long-term mental health advocate Michael Burge OAM has been elected to the board of the World Federation for Mental Health. Matthew Newton

Global role for Toowoomba mental health advocate

MICHAEL Burge, OAM, a long-time mental health advocate and mental health first aid instructor, awoke one Saturday morning to some startling news.

After more than 22 years in the mental health game, helping veterans and members of the public alike, Mr Burge has been accepted onto the board of the World Federation for Mental Health 2017-19.

The former Army Warrant Officer - himself a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression - described it as an "Oh-my-God" moment.

As the congratulatory messages flowed in from family, friends and the mental health sector over the next few days, Mr Burge said he felt "humbled".

He's now looking forward to spending his next two years on the board fighting against the widespread discrimination and stigma people face when it comes to mental health issues in the workplace.

"I believe this is a systemic failure not just in Australia but in the whole world, and the way people with mental health issues are treated in workplaces once they speak out is unacceptable," he said.

"I'd like a dollar for every time someone's come up to me... and whispered in my ear and said 'I've got bi-polar, I've got borderline personality disorder, I've got this, I've got that, but don't tell anyone'... because they get treated differently, and they know that."

For Mr Burge, it's an issue that hits close to home.

Having spent 20 years in the Australian Defence Force, he knows exactly what it's like to be discriminated against for having a mental illness.

"As soon as you identified as having a mental health problem, you were treated differently. It was shocking," he said.

"I wish we could live in a world where everyone could admit what was wrong with them and not feel like they're going to be treated differently or discriminated against, and unfortunately, we don't.

"That's one of the reasons I'm so passionate about getting on the board, is to change those attitudes."

Mr Burge said it was illegal and discriminatory for people to be "performance-managed" out of jobs after admitting they were suffering from mental health issues, and that people needed to be aware of their rights under the anti-discrimination act.

But before he begins the next chapter of his career as a board member of the WFMH, Mr Burge will need to raise the money he needs to attend the organisation's Mental Health Lived Experience panel at the World Congress of Mental Health November 2017 in New Delhi, India.

All his advocacy work for mental health is voluntary and done in his own time, with his own funds.

"Even if I've got to swim there, I'm going to get there. This is the opportunity of a lifetime," Mr Burge said.

Mr Burge has setup a gofundme page, which can be found here.