dialogue – The Lived Experience Workforce Conference
The Lived Experience Workforce Conference called dialogue held in Brisbane during May 2019, showed that Tasmania’s Peer workforce is underdeveloped compared to other Australian States. Several hundred peers attended the conference whereas in Tasmania I am aware of a handful of individuals employed specifically as peers.
The Mental Health Commissioner, Ivan Frkovic opened the Conference stating that peer workers are an integral part of effective reform and key partners in system change. He quoted Louise Byrnes’ 2016 research which revealed how the attitudes of executives is a defining reason why people with lived experience are employed, or not employed by organisations. The Commissioner spoke about the need to educate people at all levels of industry to bring about real sector change acknowledging how the peer workforce is challenging the mental health sector fabric, requiring we work together as agents of change.
I sat next to a woman at the conference, with scars up and down her forearms who has been employed as a peer-worker for sixteen years. She told me how her experience of self-harm had on many occasions ‘saved her life’. Our conversation changed my understanding of self-harming, as I hadn’t considered there to be positives before; demonstrating to me how effective her lived-experience contribution to the mental health sector is, as well as the potential of a peer workforce generally.
The first Keynote speaker was Gareth Edwards who is a writer, entertainer & healer originally from the UK. Gareth challenges the belief that medication and communication are the only approaches to mental health recovery incorporating other therapeutics such as laughing yoga and music in his work. He criticised the mental health system for coercing us all to be the same, when we are not. Gareth led the group in a series of musical activities including a Round of Row Row Row Your Boat to demonstrate how three separate streams of voices, symbolic of our divergent lives, can harmonise.
A short workshop about boundaries was facilitated by Dietician & Lived Experience practitioner, Megan Bray . The peer I worked with said that if she recognises she is talking about herself too much then she finds her boundary and returns her focus to her peer. She also intentionally breaks boundaries set by QLD Health. She explained that people have their own natural timing such as in making decisions which she always respects regardless of what her manager expects.
Megan Bray quoted author Breane Browne saying that boundaries are not only prohibitive and restrictive but helpful and generous too. Megan invited us to role model good boundaries and suggests not being under involved or over involved to keep us safe. She invited us to consider how often are we reachable explaining that poor boundaries bring burn out and compassion fatigue. Megan said that compassion fatigue is seen by some as the gift of resentment which demonstrates that a boundary has been crossed.
I listened to a speaker from Brisbane called James Hill who is employed as a Mental Health Advocate for Qld Energy. James meets monthly with the General Manager of QLD Energy and bi-monthly with the CEO to discuss the ‘real story’ of how the workers are coping. James’ initiatives which include a program called Mates in Energy stemmed from his own journey with depression. Like a lot of tradies James didn’t feel comfortable discussing depression with his boss citing kidney problems as the reason for his sick leave. It was when James’ GP asked for a ‘return to work plan’ that he learned that no such plan existed and his ‘return to work’ journey became a pilot plan for all tradies at QLD Energy.
Keynote Speaker Robyn Priest pressed the importance of being your unique self, advocating for non-compliance and reminding us that we don’t get to judge what is real for other people. She also reminded us that recovery is not about the nail. By this comment she was explaining that like in first aid training, if we are dealing with a penetrative injury, removing the nail may make the injury worse. She reminded us that supporting another individual may conflict with the system and that as peers we need to avoid role creep whereby, we act like social workers etc rather than peers. Robyn talked about what it is to be a peer with comments like reminding the person that their health and wellness is unique to them and cautioning us against expressing disapproval of the person or the choices they make as key attributes of a peer. She used the example of writing case notes and suggested that this is best done with a person rather than for a person. Composing case notes together also removes the possibility of not representing your peer accurately.
Robyn’s vision is that every person comes to realise their true awesomeness and live their own truth. Her choice to dress in what I describe as 1950’s men’s business attire came to her in the wake of a depressive cycle, where she realised, she needed to express her unique truth and not mimic the presentation society expected of her. In this liberating choice she found herself healed from depression.
A QLD organisation called Brook RED hosted the conference and their General Manager, Eschleigh Balzamo closed the conference with an incredibly candid and heartfelt address. Eschleigh spoke about the challenges Brook RED faced when she first came to the organisation. The first eighteen months were difficult with legal battles and a seventy five percent change in staff. After that tough time Brook RED entered what Eschleigh calls the good years. The transition to the NDIS has brought new challenges and Eschleigh says that Brook RED are now shamefully compliant and that they are truly concerned about how they have become a part of the mental health service. Eschleigh conveyed the dilemma of relying on the NDIS contributions of their clients to pay their wages and keep Brook RED as an organisation afloat and the ethical implications of that interdependence. Eschleigh said that Brook RED are also concerned about their contribution to restrictive practice and find themselves perpetuating systems rather than developing recovery and change. On behalf of Brook RED, she wants peers to remain outside of the system ‘rattling the cage’ because peers were not meant to become a workforce but be a social movement.
Eschleigh’s candid address left me feeling conflicted about my passion to develop a peer workforce in Tasmania and the need to remain outside of the system rattling the cage. I guess we will all find our way forward trusting in the hope that the Mental Health System is also changing from within and that the best is happening.
Susan Lipscombe – Consumer Representative
Thank you to The National Mental Health Commission for my scholarship and to Brook RED for the facilitation of that.