'Just listen' – perspectives on mental health and service delivery

'Just listen' – perspectives on mental health and service delivery

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Senior Consumer Consultant Wanda Bennetts
Above: Senior Consumer Consultant Wanda Bennetts

The Independent Mental Health Advocacy (IMHA) is an advocacy service for people on compulsory treatment orders under the Mental Health Act 2014 (Vic). Receiving compulsory treatment can be an isolating and frightening experience and IMHA’s non-legal advocates help people understand and apply their rights under the Act.

IMHA is a service delivered by Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) but it is not a legal service. Senior Consumer Consultant Wanda Bennetts has been with IMHA since it was established in 2015. Wanda has had experience using mental health services and says IMHA has truly enabled the voices of consumers to be heard.

‘I can see in the two years there’s been a huge shift and we’re getting busier. We have had lots of positive feedback from people about the value of having somebody who’s on their side who’s listening to them, who’s kind of the person who in this big horrible space is hearing what they want to do and say.’ Wanda said.

There are 19 staff in the team, with outreach posts around the state. IMHA advocates help people on compulsory treatment orders to become more involved in their treatment and recovery by talking to consumers about their preferences and providing information about the mental health system and the Act. The advocates also work with clinicians and treating teams to ensure the wishes of consumers are considered in treatment plans.

Feedback from people who use IMHA

In a recent client survey most consumers strongly agreed that:

  • their IMHA advocate had listened to them, treated them with respect and supported them to communicate their views and preferences
  • their IMHA advocate effectively communicated with the treating team about their views and preferences, provided helpful information and linked them with helpful services
  • they had a greater understanding of their rights and were more confident expressing their views and preferences.

Responses ranged across the spectrum from ‘strongly agreed’ to ‘strongly disagreed’ in questions related to:

  • how they viewed their treating teams response to their views and preferences
  • whether there were positive changes to their treatment
  • whether they had more control over their treatment and recovery.

Earlier this year a consumer gave feedback to a particular IMHA advocate:

‘I was treated with great respect, care and courtesy and I am very grateful for the compassionate ear and overwhelmed by how quickly I received a positive outcome due to IMHA. It was very much like being in a dark dungeon and now the lights are on I have hope now’.

Key achievements of IMHA

Wanda believes just getting set up as a service has been a huge milestone: ‘Getting memorandum’s of understanding in place and outreach posts so that people can be seen every couple of weeks if they’re in the services, just getting up and running and becoming a strong and cohesive team is in itself a huge achievement. More recently we’ve had some good wins, where we’ve established that people previously thought to not have capacity did in fact have that capacity to say “no I don’t want this treatment” … that’s what you want to do you, you want to influence services so these issues don’t keep coming up but it’s going to take years it’s not something that happens overnight.'

While the consumer rights based approach of IMHA is gaining traction in some services, others have a way to go. ‘On my good days I’d say things are changing but on bad days I’d say I’m still raising things with services that I was 18 years ago when I started and that others have probably raised before me.’ Wanda said.

Wanda believes the key to improving services for consumers is simple: 'By listening to them and shaping the services to what works for people. It’s hard because services are so busy and often stretched and there may be little time to think about things from a consumers perspective. In terms of consumers’ shaping legal services, I think this is quite new and I don’t think that most legal services have thought about a consumer perspective, or the perspective of the client as shaping and driving their services before. My role at IMHA is new to this kind of setting, so it’s about getting the people who use the service to tell you what their experience is like and to think about it as putting yourself in their shoes. You can’t please everybody but at least if you can think about it as, like a colleague of mine puts it, "Is this course of action good enough for me or my family?" and if it’s not good enough for me and my family, it’s probably not good enough for the consumer either.’

Shifting community understanding of mental health

In Mental Health Week, Wanda hopes that people in the broader community will become more aware of the depth of perspectives and issues in the mental health sector. ‘The community have a very different view of what it’s like in services; they often don’t know about things like compulsory treatment. They don’t know that we have in Victoria among the highest compulsory treatment orders in the world and that people are getting electroconvulsive treatment against their will in our services every day.

'I think the public perception around mental health is that it will all be fine if the person takes their medication. But there’s a lot of people for whom medication is detrimental. I don’t think the public has a real sense of what it’s like and the media perpetuates this, that if a person is unwell just give them a pill and it will all work out. That’s not how it is in life.’

However, she says she’s heartened everyday by her colleagues and the strength of consumers to express themselves: 'The people working at IMHA are amazing and the diversity of experience is amazing as is the passion of the people they work for. But it’s the tip of the iceberg – we need to have IMHA duplicated one hundred times over and the other thing is we need a world where it’s not just about mental health clinical services, we need consumer led services and consumer led respite that help people before they get into crisis – because services are so crisis driven that they’re not a place for recovery much of the time.’

Contact IMHA

Phone: Call us on 1300 947 820 between 9.30 am and 4.30 pm, Monday to Friday
Email: contact@imha.vic.gov.au.
Website: The Indepdent Mental Health Advocacy website