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Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System

Personal story:

Mary O’Hagan MNZM

Mary O’Hagan MNZM

As a young woman, Mary used New Zealand’s mental health services for eight years. She said these experiences had a profound impact on her.

Ever since then, I have worked to make a difference to the way society and services respond to people with major mental distress.

Mary has now been involved in mental health support for more than 30 years. She was an initiator of the mental health service user movement in New Zealand in the late 1980s, and since then she has occupied several roles, including mental health adviser to the United Nations and the World Health Organization and is a former New Zealand Mental Health Commissioner.

Reflecting on her time as a Mental Health Commissioner, Mary spoke about the need for more lived experience leadership.

As a collective, we need to take up leadership roles. I was a Commissioner in the New Zealand Mental Health Commission … I was amazed at the power of position, which is quite ridiculous. I’d been an advocate, and nobody took any notice of me, and as soon as I became a Commissioner everyone [listened to] what I said. I was saying exactly the same thing!

I think we need ‘position power’ in the mental health system. Very few of us have it.

Mary believes that roles for people with lived experience must go well beyond peer support.

Importantly, roles for people with lived experience should not be limited to roles that require lived experience, like a peer support role. Rather, we need to develop the capacity for people with lived experience to take on generic roles—to be the managers, receptionists, chief executives, analysts, social workers, doctors or nurses. This would be one solution to the problem of low labour market participation of people with mental distress.

Following her role as a New Zealand Mental Health Commissioner, Mary established a peer-led social enterprise called PeerZone, delivering peer-led workshops for people with lived experience and providing group and one-to-one peer support.

As a small business, one of the big difficulties we faced at PeerZone was that there were not many organisations in the mental health marketplace who wanted what we were offering—because the system is skewed towards ‘pills and pillows’ responses and traditional community service responses.

Mary advocates for growth in peer-led organisations and said more sustainable funding mechanisms are required.

We need to nurture peer-led organisations and grow the peer workforce. The way the system currently operates, peer-led organisations tend to be poorly funded and they can’t grow.

To support peer-led organisations to flourish, we need to address the way the system as a whole is organised and the biases in the system which influence how we think about and value different ways of responding to people in distress.

In Mary’s view, ‘a transformation of the mental health system from within’ is required to put the views and perspectives of consumers at the centre.

We need to change the whole way we think about people with distress and about the system, so that we make decisions and distribute resources in a way that creates the space for the lived experience voice to be strong. Otherwise, the values and preferences of people with lived experience are no more than an afterthought, tacked on to a system that doesn’t truly notice or value them.

Source: Witness Statement of Mary O’Hagan MNZM, 16 June 2020; Mary O’Hagan, First Person: The Role of Lived Experience in Shaping Mental Health Services (presented at the Communities in Control Conference, Melbourne, 2010).