A thriving mental health Lived Experience (Peer) workforce is a vital component of “quality, recovery-focussed mental health services”. This principle is embedded in the mental health plans and policies that influence all mental health care services in Australia.
The slow translation of policy into practice has highlighted misconceptions about the role of Lived Experience work and the type of support needed to ensure that this workforce is able to actively contribute to shaping the future of Australia’s mental health system. This workforce is not an optional addition to service delivery. Lived Experience is central to mental health reform. It is the responsibility of every agency and practitioner in mental health to take steps to bring Lived Experience into the design and delivery of all services.
The Lived Experience workforce is made up of people who are employed in paid positions that require Lived Experience as an essential employment criterion, regardless of position type or setting. This is a professional approach in which diverse personal experience-based knowledge is applied within a consistent framework of values and principles. To realise the full potential of this workforce, Lived Experience workers need to be engaged in meaningful and supported roles that are consistent with this framework.
Lived Experience workers provide a resource for change. Regardless of the job position, each worker is a ‘change agent’ providing a resource to support personal change in service users and cultural and practice change in the service. A core purpose of the Lived Experience workforce is to help service providers to understand everything in mental health care through the lens of Lived Experience and recovery. Workforce development is not simply about creating new jobs; it is about the internal organisational and individual professional development that shifts the focus to the experience of mental illness.
The dual focus of Lived Experience work is a unique characteristic that requires other health professionals and employing organisations to actively partner with the Lived Experience workforce. Lived Experience work needs to be supported and embedded as an integral part of the way all mental health services are delivered. The challenge is not simply to recruit new workers, but to embed a new source of knowledge and new ways of thinking about mental health, into an established service system. A commitment to change, collaboration, and co-development is essential.
The Lived Experience workforce provides one way to harness the power of experience-based knowledge. National Mental Health Service Standards require the involvement of consumers and carers in the development, planning, delivery and evaluation of services. Supporting the Lived Experience workforce is about engaging consumers, carers and their families, enabling them to find their place in the co-production of improved approaches to mental illness.
A well-supported Lived Experience workforce results in benefits for people accessing services, families, and service providers, as well as the broader community. Tangible benefits to mental health service providers include improved engagement with service users, more sustainable treatment outcomes, a reduction in critical incidents and the need for urgent care. This has flow-on benefits for the health workforce as a whole, improving staff retention and wellbeing. Cost-benefit analysis has shown a significant return on investment for the health system and larger service providers. In community settings, the Lived Experience workforce can reduce the pressure on General Practitioners and youth mental health services and increase opportunities for earlier intervention and recovery support.
Designated Lived Experience roles raise expectations of what is possible for people who have Lived Experience and significantly contribute to reducing discrimination and prejudicial attitudes.
To achieve the benefits of engaging a Lived Experience workforce, the workforce needs to be well-supported, sufficient in numbers and embedded across all areas of the mental health system. The responsibility for workforce development sits across a diverse range of jurisdictions, agencies, and professions. The partnership for change must be between employers, health professionals, Lived Experience agencies and Lived Experience workers. Therefore action is required by all stakeholders to ensure the development of the Lived Experience workforce.
The purpose of Lived Experience workforce development is to ensure that skilled Lived Experience workers are available to meet the needs of people with mental health challenges, their carers, families and supporters and the needs of mental health services.
The national goal for workforce development is to engage all stakeholders to address key development priorities collaboratively in order to grow and sustain a viable Lived Experience workforce. Specific issues for workforce development include: developing understanding of the Lived Experience workforce, increasing the size of the workforce, improving awareness of recovery-oriented service delivery, and promoting consistency in quality of practice and outcomes for service users across Australia.