Filling a mental health gap with lived experience

  • Lizzie Graham, Lived Experience Workforce Program Senior Project Officer & Molly Springhall, Lived Experience Workforce Program Manager , Mental Health Coalition of South Australia

Lizzie Graham, Lived Experience Workforce Program Senior Project Officer & Molly Springhall, Lived Experience Workforce Program Manager , Mental Health Coalition of South Australia

By
Molly Springhall, Lived Experience Workforce Program Manager
Mental Health Coalition of South Australia
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In November 2021, South Australia’s Deputy Coroner Ian Lansell White handed down his findings into the inquest of the death of a young man in the state’s Riverland. What the Deputy Coroner found was a severe shortfall of mental health services in the area, which led to a review across regional South Australia. Eighteen months later, the Government was presented with the Review of Rural Mental Health Services in South Australia Report which found “rural South Australia have (sic) fewest mental health workers per capita in Australia”. With that, it said there was an “almost complete absence” of lived experience workers.

Workers trained in using their lived experience would be valuable in any clinical setting but especially so for services that keep people out of crisis. This specialised workforce have clear delineations about what they are able to bring to mental health settings. 

Lived experience is having experience, either personal or as a family member or carer, of mental health challenges. The lived experience practice is defined by its own guiding values and principles with human rights at the centre.

Lived experience workers can provide recovery oriented, values driven mental health services in rural settings, based on relationships that are built on equality, empowerment, and self-determination. When local people are trained to become lived experience workers, an organisation may also find a more sustainable workforce compared to having to retain non-local Mental Health professionals.

Building a lived experience workforce in rural settings requires a discussion with other mental health staff about their value and how to embed this workforce in a sustainable and qualitative way.  Often within services it can require a bespoke approach. Yet the mental health sector are leaders in utilising lived experience as a skillset in supporting recovery.

In South Australia there is a dedicated Lived Experience Workforce Program (LEWP) that was created to support the development of a quality, qualified, sustainable, and highly skilled workforce in the non-government mental health sector.  This program is funded by SA Health and delivered by the Mental Health Coalition of South Australia, the state’s peak body for non-Government mental health services.

LEWP supports the sector through programs and services aimed at both an emerging and established workforce. This includes supporting leaders of the lived experience workforce and organisations.

To implement and expand a lived experience workforce in rural settings is not a complex task but it does take time and focus. The first step is to work with an organisation through the standards and guidelines which provides the basis of best practice for supporting its lived experience workforce. That process may sound daunting for an organisation new to this space, however LEWP has a track record of supporting organisations to support and grow its lived experience workforce.

Once you have a workforce in place it is not as easy as set and forget. As with other areas of specialisation, the lived experience workforce does require specific supervision or what is termed Peer Supervision. Peer Supervision provides an opportunity to reflect on practice and how it aligns to the guiding values and principles of lived experience work. It is a key part of professional development and can include a regular check in with scope of practice to an individual's job description.

While the Rural Mental Health Report uncovered inefficiencies and shortfalls, some workforce solutions are not insurmountable. Online training, peer supervision and other services give LEWP the ability to keep supporting employers to develop a pool of skilled and trained lived experience workers in rural settings. With plenty of lead time to have the conversations with your staff and an investment from managers to commit to its rollout, lived experience workers can be an important part of delivering effective mental health services anywhere in Australia.

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