‘Mental distress is one of the most relatable human experiences we can encounter’ were the opening words of Wellways CEO Laura Collister at this year’s Woodcock Public Lecture, sparking reflective conversations about listening and the effectiveness of our current approaches to dealing with distress.

For many years, the Woodcock Public Lecture has been a much-anticipated date on the Victorian mental health calendar, attracting sector leaders, mental health workers, service users, and the wider community; and it certainly didn’t disappoint in 2023.

Well known for challenging the status quo, ‘Being Human: Humane Responses to Distress’ was the topic that stirred up distinguished presenters, panel guests, and the live audience at the prestigious Wheeler Centre and online.

Learn more and watch the Woodcock Public Lecture 2023!

Watch now!

Simply listen

After a warm Welcome to Country on a chilly Melbourne night from proud Wurundjeri woman Stacie Piper, Nurse Practitioner and Psychotherapist Matt Ball challenged the audience, and the mental health sector, to consider a new environment in which everyone just listens when interacting with someone who is in distress.

As a public speaker, Matt bases his views and thoughts on his work at the Humane Clinic which was founded by him, and is delivered by the Just Listening charity. In this capacity, he discussed the importance of creating environments where people feel comfortable bringing their ‘whole selves’ to the fore. At the same time, listeners are actively present without imposing their personal background, professional paradigms and experiences on the person in distress.

‘When we think about asking the right questions, we are not listening – people will tell us what is happening if we give them space to do it. Asking questions of people is based on what I want to know, not what they want to tell me. You can only know your experience of me describing my experience.’ – Matt Ball

With this new approach, Matt calls for insiders to unlearn the clinical side of their role while questioning pigeonholing people in distress, thereby challenging the whole concept of mental health diagnosis.

Matt Ball and Helena Roennfeldt

Crisis services are themselves in crisis

While the audience was still digesting Matt Ball’s proposal, PhD candidate Helena Roennfeldt took to the stage to share her research on people’s encounters with mental health distress and crisis services.

Referring to her own lived experience and research, Helena outlined that crisis affects us individually but also as a society. While crisis services report to be recovery, trauma-informed and person-centred, they really are a ‘"roadside patch you up" job where people have often experienced marginalisation, extreme stress, grief, loneliness, existential crisis, and loss of faith,' said Helena in her address at the lecture.

‘Regardless of whether the crisis response was within an ED [emergency department] or a crisis alternative, it was a quality of the connection that really made the difference, and the ability to provide validation and a place of emotional safety.’ – Helena Roennfeldt

Left to right: Claire Conlon, Prof Richard Newton, Laura Collister, Matt Ball, Helena Roennfeldt

Much needed conversations to prepare for the future

Following the well-received presentations by Matt Ball and Helena Roennfeldt, Claire Conlon from Wellways opened a panel discussion where the two speakers met Professor Richard Newton, an experienced psychiatrist and medical director, to discuss what humane responses to distress could look like.

The panel acknowledged the failures of the past and the challenges for the Mental Health Reform in Victoria while highlighting the harm done to people in distress by the complexity and inhumane elements of the current mental health system.

It is connection that heals – not therapy, was one of the learnings all panel members could agree on.

To follow the discussion and revisit the Woodcock Public Lecture 2023, please visit the Wellways Youtube channel.

To engage in the conversation, visit our social media channels.

Q&A with the Woodcock Public Lecture 2023 panel

Would you like to hear more from Matt, Helena and Richard? The panel generously allocated time to answer the audience's questions. From moving to a more compassionate-informed model to eliminating compulsory treatment and assessment, the panel delves deeper into discussions surrounding 'Being Human: Humane Responses to Distress'.

Watch the video here.

A special thanks

This lecture would not have been possible without the generosity of the late Frank Woodcock and his family.