IT WAS just over a year ago when Dr Louise Byrne was shouted down while speaking at a public meeting in North Rockhampton about a planned community care unit for people struggling with mental health.
Residents near the site were uncertain and looking for information.
But instead, Louise was given no chance to speak.
She said the experience unnerved her and reinforced how alive the stigma around mental health was.
Outside her role as a lecturer and researcher at CQUniversity, most people hadn’t heard of Louise Byrne.
But that changed in October last year after she was invited to join the panel on ABC television’s Q&A program, broadcast live around Australia from the Pilbeam Theatre.
The topic was Australia’s growing mental health crisis, with a focus on rural and regional areas, and this time, half a million people listened intently as Louise shared her personal experience, professional insights and wisdom.
Now Dr Byrne has been appointed as an adviser to the Queensland Mental Health Commission, one day a week, while she continues her work at CQU.
“Instead of banging on doors to beg and plead… to be invited in and to hear them say things I would have thought impossible from senior managers 10 years ago… I have to pinch myself,” she said.
Dr Byrne’s work is dedicated to the emerging, growth industry of lived-experience practitioners.
“Lived-experience practitioners are change agents… especially in rural and isolated areas, a lived-experience person who’s local to the area also understands the region, and they get it,” she said.
“They know how to be part of that community.”
Queensland’s Mental Health Commissioner, Dr Lesley van Schoubroeck, said Dr Byrne’s focus would be the increasing acceptance that people with a lived-experience were well suited to making a valuable contribution to better outcomes.
“It’s a big step in the right direction to bring lived-experience practitioners on board to advice the Commissioner,” Dr Byrne said.
“She has a really strong commitment to lived-experience and consumer participation. She’s passionate about research and an evidence base for, sometimes controversial, new ideas.
“That’s essential, because you’ll never get the workforce on board with new initiatives unless they see good reason.
“Research, anecdotes and my own experience shows that having a mental health challenge, particularly one that requires hospitalisation, changes the way people view you and the way you view yourself.
“Other people set the rules and do everything for you. There’s a lot of restrictions on your freedom and you can start to develop a patient identity, as different and somehow less than other people.
“Someone with a lived-experience understands what it’s like and can create a bridge of communication.
“Service providers are doing their best, but they can’t understand when they haven’t had that experience themselves… lived- experience practitioners have a unique perspective and we need sound, robust research around that emerging workforce.”
Dr Byrne says the mental health movement is a human rights movement that started around the same time as women’s rights, gay rights and the civil rights movement, but never gained traction in the same way.
“I’m hoping this role will be an opportunity to help the public to understand how important this is as a human rights issue, around how people are treated.
“We can pretend its okay to let the services deal with other people’s issues, but you can’t ever replace human connection and interconnection.
“If we want to stem the tide, we all need to take personal responsibility, because this is an epidemic and it’s going to get worse.
“Ultimately at the end of the day, we are all in this together.”
This article first appeared on ‘The Morning Bulletin’ on 21 July 2015.