“All for one and one for all!”

Be it a motto, mantra, slogan or saying, these are words I apply to the feeling I got when I attended a recent forum about advocacy run by Wellways. To be clear, this is the first time I’ve attended a Wellways event. I have no affiliation or agenda to promote them and confess to Googling the organisation.

I’m your everyday mental health consumer with 30 years of lived experience. Over that time, I’ve done volunteer work supporting other consumers, been an official and unofficial advocate for patients (I was a nurse), family and friends, and a carer to boot. So I feel qualified to speak about it. I’ve even upgraded my consumer work capacity to 'consultant' as I engage with various committees and groups, all with the aim of improving life for all consumers.

I attended the forum in this capacity. I wasn’t sure at first how the conversation would be addressed and who would be joining me. But what a mix. Consumers, peer workers, service providers, clinical and community workers, all passionate about making a difference in the domain of advocacy.

So, what is advocacy? I learnt the word comes from Latin, meaning, “to be called to stand beside”.  From a peer worker, mental health practitioner or service provider perspective, I can see that this is an apt definition. But what does advocacy mean to me? From my perspective, it means: supporting and encouraging my ability to navigate my mental health journey in an informed way, working with me to build my confidence and capacity to do this and providing support and direction when I can’t.

Who can be an advocate? Consumer Joel Chatelier shared his story, emphasising anyone, at any time, can be an advocate. The teacher who notices a change in their student, the neighbour who hasn’t seen Mr Smith for a while, the friend who is concerned that Steve is partying too hard, or another mum in the new mum’s group concerned about her peer. It is important to ask, “are you ok?”, but equally important is giving people the knowledge and skill to help if the answer is “no”. Being a nurse, I’ve usually known the next step, so I’d never really thought about that. It was a refreshing wake-up call.

With this question buzzing our brains, we broke to eat and socialise. I loved being in a room where all you knew about the person next to you was the name on their sticker. There was not a feeling of them and us, which often occurs at conferences and forums. Stories were shared or not. I could have been standing next to the minister for health—well, I can dream—and had the opportunity to tell it like it is.

After lunch, the energy intensified when we separated into groups to explore four important key issues we had identified: community inclusion, community education, consumers and carers getting the opportunities they need to guide conversations about how the mental health system would work best, and the NDIS—our message to the decision makers.

All I can say is, “wow”. I am passionate about the concept of true collaboration, and boy did I get my chance. By the end of the day, so many new ideas were generated, new links and partnerships envisaged, and a real sense of purpose and hope arose. Mental illness can be a very lonely experience, and I left the forum with a true sense that in the future it can become a journey of all for one and one for all.

Fiona L Browning