The value of dedicated positions for people with lived experiences is increasingly recognised in the mental health and other sectors. Here, Emma Bohmer (Senior Adviser - Lived Experience and Education) and Tom Wood (Advisory Council member) from the Mental Health Complaints Commissioner (MHCC) talk about how their own lived experience of mental health challenges, navigating services and recovery helps them advocate for others.
What is lived experience and why should it be seen as expertise?
Emma: Lived experience is about using your expertise gained from personal experiences to inform and influence systemic change.
Working with people with lived experience is beneficial for everyone as the diverse voices of consumers, families and carers offer unique insights into the experience of living with mental health issues and navigating the mental health system.
Viewing the mental health system from this perspective provides valuable opportunities to make improvements. At the MHCC we are driven by lived experience of mental health issues in all the work we do.
What made you want to work in a lived experience role?
Tom: My friends and I have had some negative experiences in mental health services, which I found stressful and annoying. I felt that my rights to privacy and safety were not being respected but I didn’t feel I could speak up at the time. Now I want to be part of the change.
Emma: I was originally drawn to lived experience roles after witnessing an amazing Peer Worker. The opportunity to maintain a deep level of authenticity in my professional career is really empowering and strengthening. I am also personally driven by the opportunity to positively impact the lives of others.
What are some of the challenges with lived experience roles?
Tom: Sometimes learning about the amount of struggle and distress people experience in the mental health system can feel really overwhelming.
Emma: Lived experience roles require passion and a willingness to draw on the difficult experiences you have had, as well as those of others. It’s important that I balance this with self-care to both sustain and be effective in this type of work. It’s also important to have support.
Where can young people find out opportunities around lived experience roles?
Tom: I’d follow people or organisations on issues you care about on social media and get involved with consultations or opportunities which may come up. Also connect with other people who are passionate about the same things and may know of other opportunities.
What advice would you give to young people experiencing mental health challenges?
Tom: When I was younger, I felt hopeless and that my best bet in life was to hide my condition and just try and survive, but everybody deserves to have a good life.It always pays to speak up about whatever is going on for you. Don't keep it to yourself - help really is out there.
Emma: Seek support and speak up about your experiences with people you feel safe with: this may be professionals, people with lived experience, or family and friends. Try and be compassionate to yourself and keep going - your challenges may turn out to be your greatest strengths.
We also spoke to Emma, Tom and MHCC Commissioner Dr Lynne Coulson-Barr about how a complaint can improve the mental health system. Read that here.
The MHCC is an independent, specialist body established under Victoria’s Mental Health Act 2014 to safeguard rights, resolve complaints about Victorian public mental health services, and recommend improvements: https://www.mhcc.vic.gov.au/
Please note: Due to COVID-19 the MHCC is operating a limited service and cannot receive visitors or answer calls immediately. Please leave a message with your contact details on their telephone (1800 246 054) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and they will respond to you as soon as possible.