Recovery can be a long painful journey for those affected by a decline in mental health. Interventions such as hospitalisation can leave people experiencing mental illness emotionally scarred. This trauma can make a meaningful recovery even more difficult.
In response, governments across Australia are seeking out people with
lived experience of mental illness to include their perspective in mental health policy. Known as consumer experts, these people currently hold positions in mental health services in most states. Consumer experts occupy a variety of roles in the field of mental health, including policy development, consultancy, executive management and teaching.
Cathy Roper is employed by Melbourne University as a consumer academic. She experienced degrading treatment at the hands of health professionals when she lost her job as a teacher due to a mental health condition. Cathy is able to use the knowledge she gained from overcoming her mental health challenges, and now lectures psychiatric nurses so they better understand the problems faced by users of mental health services.
Cathy is Australia's first consumer academic. The only other Australian consumer academic is Louise Byrne at Central Queensland University. Their teaching stresses that recognition of the individual and their worth is crucial to fostering positive changes in patients' lives. They ask their students to look past the symptoms and see the human side of their patients.
Cathy and Louise emphasise the concept of
recovery in mental health care. Recovery does not necessarily mean living without symptoms. The Recovery model focuses on supporting patients to deal with their challenges so they can return to their communities and live meaningful lives.
Vrinda Eden is the Director of Consumer and Carer relations at Southern Health's mental health program. She is enthusiastic about the inclusion of consumer academics in mental health teaching. Vrinda says,
Expertise from lived experience is just as valid and often more useful than qualifications. Vrinda also adds,
The consumer academic brings that expertise to their education activities...enriching the understandings of the students.
Vrinda is the only consumer in an executive management position at a Victorian mental health service.
A 2011 report by the Mental Health Council of Australia found consumers of mental health services often felt stigmatised by their treating professionals. This stigma can be a major barrier to recovery and ultimately increases the distress of service users. The report concluded that further training of mental health professionals about stigma could lead to better outcomes for patients, also referred to in the industry as consumers.
The report also found consumers felt they were rarely listened to. Consumers said that their own ideas and strategies to cope with their illness were ignored. They also stated that challenging or questioning authority, even when reasonable, was seen as abnormal behaviour.
Mental health experts see consumer academics as an important step in countering negative attitudes held towards consumers by mental health professionals. But from Vrinda's experience not all mental health professionals share this view,
It's not uncommon to hear, especially from doctors, that they listen to consumers all day, so what do they possibly have to learn from 'professional' consumers.
More consumer academics needed
Consumer academics also face barriers to employment. Vrinda says,
Universities need support to overcome the restrictions they have on the employment of people without tertiary Qualifications. Vrinda thinks the employment of more consumer academics in universities would promote
the acceptance of the lived experience as an expert discipline.
Supporters of consumer academics would like to see more teaching positions made available to them. Research indicates that consumer academics might be the key to unlocking better outcomes for patients. Vrinda feels the consumer academic movement has the potential to make a big impact, saying
While things are slow in Australia, there is always hope.