Time to ride ‘perfect wave’ of change in mental health...just don’t leave consumers on the beach

30 Nov 2017 | Mental Health & Addiction Quality Improvement
Tagged mental health & addiction quality improvement consumers consumer engagement



I feel there’s a big wave of change coming in mental health.

I’ve seen this before. I was working in Scotland as managing director of a mental health organisation at the time the country was getting its own devolved parliament.

This was a time of real opportunity. It gave us access to parliament, politicians and the Scottish equivalent of the Ministry of Health. We were also reviewing the mental health legislation. All these factors came together to help us make a real, important difference to the Scottish mental health sector, and to consumers and their families.

I see the same opportunity right now in New Zealand, with the coming-together of the mental health and addiction quality improvement programme, the new government in power, the promise of a mental health review and new commission, and the action that is needed on suicide prevention.

It’s like the ‘perfect wave’ is coming and we need to get out our surfboards or our waka, and line them up so we can make the most of this momentum, this mood for change, and be ready ourselves to maximise the opportunities coming our way.

But if we are going to do this right, we need to make sure we aren’t leaving consumers on the beach.

My role is to ensure consumers and their families and whānau are at the centre of participation in these changes. It’s not just about having someone ‘at the table’. If there is a consumer voice at the table, you might listen to that voice but if the consumer doesn’t have any power, ultimately, they’re just wasting their time.

It’s about consumers having real power, and having their voices heard. We need power to be shared from the outset, which means true collaboration. Yet, because of the way the mental health system is structured, shared power and collaboration will require some clinicians and managers to ‘seed’ some power to consumers and their families and whānau.

I don’t underestimate how challenging this will be. Clinicians – psychiatrists in particular – have often been the most powerful voices at the table. But we need to find a way to ensure the psychiatrist voice is no more powerful than the consumer voice, so the psychiatrist is not accused of being ‘un-representative,’ just as the consumer voice often is. If we start off with these different ground rules, only then will we get effective participation.

Consumers must be involved in the new mental health review from the outset. Meaningful consumer participation from people and their families and whānau who have experienced the distress of mental illness will enhance and add credibility to mental health services. Those services already know many of their own limitations but they lack solutions to remedy these issues.

I’ve been working and volunteering in the mental health sector for over 30 years and I feel that now is a really good time to make changes for the better and get some traction in New Zealand. Let’s catch the wave – just don’t leave consumers on the beach.


shaun McNeil

Author: Shaun McNeil, national consumer engagement advisor mental health and addictions, Health Quality & Safety Commission.

Last updated 25/03/2021