Last week Jaime from Being and Elizabeth (Liz), CEO of WayAhead, travelled to the Central Coast for the Central Coast Peer Champions Forum, run by Central Coast ARAFMI. While we were there, we had the opportunity to meet with peer workers from around NSW, both consumers and carers, who shared the changes they have seen in the mental health system in NSW and the changes they want to see in the future. We had a fantastic conversation, filled with interesting ideas and important concerns.

It was encouraging to hear people talk about the reduction in stigma and what a positive impact this had on people’s lives. As stigma has decreased, it has become easier to have non-judgmental conversations about mental health issues with health professionals and friends and families. Peer workers play an important role for people with mental health issues who may not be able to have these understanding conversations with others in their life. Seeing people on TV talking about mental health, both celebrities and TV shows, such as the ABC’s Mental As, helped people feel more understood and less alone. Although we have come a long way, many people are still impacted by the stigma attached to mental health issues and more work needs to be done in this area.

“I grew up, like all my generation, when you never talked about these things. I suffered profound depression and I don’t think I spoke one word about it to another human being. The big thing for me is to see these programs you’re talking about on the ABC.  It’s talked about openly and acknowledged. People can say it publicly and they are accepted and understood. I’m sure some stigma still exists in places but it’s not like it was.”
Consultation participant

People identified a lot of areas for improvement in the mental health system. These included more implementation of recovery principles such as collaboration and autonomy, and better transitions between hospital and home, which can be a high-risk time. We were concerned by instances of abuse that were brought up, and by stories of people being turned away from services. It is clear more work needs to be done to connect people with the right services and to make sure the health professionals in those services work from recovery principles. People also felt that people with mental health issues should have better opportunities to give feedback on services, and that often services only wanted to know about the ‘easy’ things, like the food and the building. Some suggested improvements were introducing peer workers in community settings, having more mental health staff in emergency rooms, and introducing open dialogue, which would transform the traditional power dynamic between consumers and clinicians.

“Why can’t you have peer or support workers in community health centres in local areas and rural places, where people can just drop in? There’s a need for a drop-in service by people with lived experience who will take the time of day to meet with you.”
Consultation participant

Technology was another big change people had noticed in the last five years. Attendees appreciated its role in helping isolated people access support and connect with community. However, they noted that technology can be intimidating for people, especially those who are new to it. The challenge then, is to make technology more friendly.

Some of the conversation was about how peer workers fit in the mental health system, and how important it is to value lived experience. Several peer workers said they still experienced discrimination in the workplace, with people saying they were asking for special treatment when they needed workplace adjustments, such as flexible hours.

“I’ve heard it said before that peer workers want to be respected and treated equally but they also want all this special treatment. And what I say to that is that the idea of these adjustments is that it gives people the opportunity to equally contribute.”
Consultation participant

Thanks to everyone who attended for sharing your experience so generously. We will keep advocating on these issues in the future and pushing for change.

If you would like Being to do a consultation in your area, contact us on policy@being.org.au or (02) 9332 0200.

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