Collaboration the key to improving mental health services

A researcher from The Australian National University (ANU) is calling on our mental health sector to ensure people experiencing mental illness are more comprehensively involved in providing advice and leadership to mental health service providers.

"The people who're using mental health services have lived through the system and they know it better than anyone else - they know what it feels like and their experience profoundly matters," Dr Brett Scholz, Research Fellow from the ANU College of Health and Medicine said.

"They should be involved in every level of the process, whether it's evaluation, delivery, implementation, or planning these services from the get-go."

Dr Scholz believes the stigma surrounding mental health issues often contributes to the lack of consultation by health service providers.

"People with mental health issues are often falsely assumed to lack the capacities to be involved in service decision-making. In fact, their experience means they have a lot of value to add."

Dr Scholz's research looks at how people with mental health are involved in developing and advising service providers and what role they play in leadership teams.

"I'd love to see every board have more than one person directly affected by mental health issues. We found in our research that if there's just one person and they're in room with 10 psychiatrists, it can be disempowering."

"Health service organisations now have what they call consumer representatives serving on committees. At the more tokenistic end, sometimes, these service providers bring on consumer representatives just to tick a box."

Dr Scholz wants to take his research back to various health service organisations to demonstrate the benefits of more meaningful engagement.

He's seeing positive signs here in the ACT, with peak bodies like the ACT Mental Health Consumer Network and the ACT Mental Health Community Coalition already committed to meaningful consumer leadership.

"The smaller size of Canberra compared to bigger cities means it might be easier for relationships to develop between these organisations and service providers."

While Dr Scholz's body of work has focused on mental health, he's already exploring how it could be beneficial in other areas like palliative care.

Dr Scholz has been recognised with an industry award for excellence in mental health research.

He was presented with the Early Career Researcher Award Defined by Excellence at The Mental Health Services Learning Network's (TheMHS) annual conference on Wednesday 29 August.

The MHS Learning Network brings together academics, service providers, policy makers, and consumers focused on improving mental health services in Australia and New Zealand.

Professor Imogen Mitchell, Dean of the ANU Medical School, congratulated Dr Scholz on his award, "I am pleased that Brett's work has been well received by our peers. Consumer leadership is indeed increasingly important across all health disciplines. It is time consumer voices are heard."