Month: August 2020

Community and connection – how peak bodies pivoted during COVID-19

When COVID-19 hit the headlines early in 2020, there were big concerns around how people would be able to maintain strong connections with their peers and communities, while self-isolating, working from home, and spending more time on their own.

It was fascinating to see how organisations around WA pivoted their activities to make sure people could still connect and get the support they needed. We take a look at how that unfolded for several key consumer organisations, and the lessons learned about community during a global crisis.

People With disabilities WA

People With disabilities WA have always done a lot of work through phone and email so the biggest shift was ensuring that these things could still happen while staff have been working from home. We were aiming for as little disruption for consumers as possible and the biggest issue was that some of our group meetings for projects had to move from face-to-face to an online Zoom or other format.

What we found was that for most of the people with disabilities that were part of these groups, doing a meeting via Zoom was a lot easier and made them more able to attend and participate. This was the same for some of our individual advocacy work where people with physical disabilities in particular and disabilities which made it difficult to access transport were much more comfortable using tele or videoconferencing. However, for others with different disabilities, Zoom meetings were and are more difficult.

We found that there was a very little change in the amount of interaction and communication that we have been getting from consumers. Certainly there has been no decrease in the need for advocacy whether things were COVID related or not.

For our individual advocates and our project staff we will be continuing to use Zoom and Microsoft Teams as a way to connect with each other and with people coming to us for support. Our staff are seeking more flexible arrangements with their work, and our technology and understanding of technology has increased to allow that flexibility to happen both for our staff, and the way we interact with consumers. These are absolutely things that we need to keep in place and will be keeping in place into the future.


Consumers of Mental Health WA

Consumers of Mental Health WA (CoMHWA) created and maintained a central hub of resources for consumers and provided education and upskilling to peer support workers working through these changing times.

They increased their social media presence and encouraged ongoing engagement with members through online means. To support this, they recorded video messages from staff and produced resources for how to use online video conferencing.

CoMHWA provided a continuity of support through transition to phone and online meetings where appropriate. They ensured phone and in-person support resources were mailed to members, to ensure that members without technology or internet access where still able to reach needed supports.

CoMHWA found many people responded positively to these changes, stating that the information being made available was useful and a welcome distraction. Importantly, they noted it was great to still be able to connect with others.

However, some consumers found the technology difficult to navigate or did not have access to technology. Others found it hard to engage with others effectively in this way, with one consumer saying it was “harder to stay focused in online meetings due to the lack of active engagement activities and interaction”.

On the whole, many consumers want the provision of education and groups to continue online as the accessibility and flexibility is more suitable to their needs, with one consumer saying “thank you so much for this series, it has been very helpful”.

While reliance on technology solely reduces access for some of the population, peer support can be useful to assist people to overcome some technology barriers.

Engaging via video conferencing increases accessibility for some of the population, and a key factor to successful engagement is regular, short sessions.

Online delivery of webinars/meetings/groups will continue as an option to allow access as CoMHWA works towards a ‘new normal’. The lessons learnt from this period will be used to ensure the broadest access and distribution of information, resources and supports.


Carers WA

When Carers WA had to cancel their face-to-face services, they relied on phone, Skype, email and Zoom to stay connected with their community.

While there was a good response to this change, many were keen for specific services, such as social support groups, education and training sessions, to resume in a physical format.

On an organisational level, Carers WA learned that while working from home is technically possible for some roles, it didn’t work as well for others. However, the organisation plans to consider more flexible working for the future, maybe mixing office and home working where practical.

Looking to the future, Carers WA note that many of their services are provided remotely as the norm so these will continue. While they don’t plan any significant changes in service delivery, they will have more scope to hold meetings with others service providers or interstate people and organisation online through Zoom.


Health Consumers’ Council


Our biggest priority over the last few months has been to mitigate the risks to our staff and community, while maintaining a focus on connection. Like many around the country we took our work online, connecting with our own team, consumers and WA Health through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Scopia, and other online platforms.

As everyone began to adapt to a new way of doing things, our engagement team began to upskill in hosting engaging, interactive online events, and we hosted introductory sessions to help consumer navigate Zoom.

We heard that opportunities for health consumer, carer, community and family representatives to connect with each other, with the health system and with organisations like us became even more important, as many in-person opportunities were postpone or cancelled. We quickly convened a COVID-19 community of interest, so that our executive director Pip Brennan could contact a ready source of consumers and carers for surveys, feedback, consumer opportunities and online forums.

Our fortnightly online drop-in sessions brought a lot a value to the community, providing the space for an informal, online get together with anyone involved or interested in consumer, carer, or community representation. In particular, they gave us a chance to involve people in rural areas who may not otherwise have been able to make it to a consumer event in Perth. Overall, we had about 120 participants across the five fortnightly sessions.

We listened to what we were hearing from consumers and their questions around COVID-19 and got involved in more online events. Our fortnightly Fireside Chats with WA health experts allow for interactive Q&As with the likes of the Director General David Russell-Weisz, and Assistant General of Clinical Health Excellence, James Williamson.

We continued to work closely with health consumer peaks across Australia, partnering with Health Issues Centre for a series of online forums exploring COVID-19 and Australia’s recovery from the pandemic. These workshops were attended by several hundred people and featured guests like Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton and Deputy Chief Public Health Officer and Executive Director Health Protection and Licensing Services, Dr Chris Lease.

Throughout it all we used social media and email to keep in regular contact with our community, not just about our own engagement activities but with reliable COVID-19 updates, consumer opportunities, and other ways to stay connected with community during challenging times.

This sense of connection and being able to reach a wider audience has been something we will carry with us as we establish new ways of working in the wake of COVID-19. We’re committed to finding a good balance between in-person and online events that removes as many barriers as possible for those wishing to attend, and will continue to look at ways to make our engagement activities more accessible to all.



*Befriend is a West Australian community development organisation sparking inclusive, connected communities. They operate community building and consulting services, developing the capabilities of local residents and community organisations to nurture connection and belonging for all people – and have a unique perspective on community connection.

Some of the most adverse effects of COVID-19 on West Australians were the social effects. Physical distancing precipitated social disconnection from each other, at a time when we needed our relationships more than ever. As an organisation that fundamentally exists to nurture connection, we invested to pivot and scale our operations in response to the rapidly elevated community need for social connectedness.

Our community builders pivoted our work in supporting inclusive social networks from place-based to digital, supporting local residents to host online social gatherings that offered a relevant alternative to help people stay socially connected. Our consultants acted in an advisory capacity to support a number of community organisations and local government authorities with designing contemporary service models that would support social and community connectedness within the constraints of physical distancing. For the Befriend Team, it was not a matter of ensuring continued support; it was a time to step up to the call of our purpose.

It was affirming to have so many other people realising what we’ve known all along, what we advocate for at the heart of our work at Befriend – that connection and community are at the heart of community wellbeing, and are essential in sustaining a thriving society. Services can only do so much; it is the strength of our relationships with each other in community that are fundamental to our collective wellbeing.

It’s been a time for community members to realise the value and importance of all members of society – of our elders, of people with diverse abilities, of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

It’s been a time to learn about and reflect on the power of technology in sustaining our connectedness, and to work on our relationship with technology, finding new and different ways to use it whilst managing the ways that it can constrain our connectedness and wellbeing.

As we move beyond the turbulence of recent months, one of our primary objectives at Befriend is to capitalise on the increased awareness of the importance of social connectedness and the increased motivation for community contribution, furthering our community building work to mobilise and support more citizens to become active in nurturing connected communities.


*This article was originally published in Health Matters 

Experts by experience – mental health peer support

In our previous Health Matters focused on self-advocacy and peer support, Rhianwen Beresford, Convenor of the WA Peer Supporters’ Network, spoke about a vision for peer support where every Western Australian knows what peer support is and can access it if they want to.

Peer support happens across all sectors and walks of life. If you’re using your own experience to help someone through a similar experience, that’s peer support. Mental health peer support offers a whole range of benefits – friendship, empowerment, lessening of stigma, increased acceptance, and shared insights about life with mental health experiences.

On a larger scale, mental health peer support can have a positive impact on the way society views and treats mental health, leading to improvements in service and more person-centred, trauma-informed responses.

Carli Sheers is an active consumer representative and mental health advocate, and we spoke to her about the importance of peer support.

Why is mental health important to you and what made you want to become active in this space?

I recovered from mental health issues through accessing peer support many years ago, and have worked in the mental health sector in various roles for 13 years. My experience and skills as a Consumer Consultant have grown through active participation in the sector and Membership of Mental Health Australia’s National Register. With intention, I developed an extensive network of mutually beneficial collegial relationships and can speak from beyond my own personal experience with their consent. I am lucky to have access to a peer mentor who I admire, respect and value. I became active in the mental health sector to raise the expectation of recovery, reduce stigma and discrimination, and increase my employability as employment is an indicator of health. I also invested in my education and founded a mental health education and training consultancy business last year.

What are the major benefits of mental health peer support, and why does it play such an important role alongside clinical treatment options?

Peer workers undertake a variety of functions in diverse settings, from service delivery to policy making to funding of services. Personal lived experience is an essential job criterion, and other competencies include a person’s overall life experience, employment and education history, emotional maturity and ability to engage and communicate. Peer workers provide an effective and high-quality intervention that can be either complementary to clinical service or, in some situations, effective as a stand-alone intervention. They see challenges as growth and learning opportunities, not as crises.

Mental health peer support workers are experts by experience and provide a specialist knowledge base that can transform individual lives and systems of care. They are recognised for using their insights and expertise from their personal expertise to inform their work, and can walk alongside people who have experienced similar distress and support them without trying to ‘fix’ their situation.  It is about engaging people with mental health issues as the central actors in their management of their mental wellbeing, helping them to find meaning in their life experiences, and guiding people’s journeys towards a contributing life. This was my experience when I accessed Grow*, a national consumer mental health organisation.

Major benefits of mental health peer support include helping people to believe in themselves and re-build their lives, discover their own solutions and develop a sense of control, master their emotional strengths, work towards self-agency and self-advocacy, enhance the quality of lifestyle and personal choices, and finding their strengths, capabilities and possibilities. Peer workers influence much needed cultural change in services and workplaces, decrease people’s need for costly acute services, and are effective in engaging people who have been difficult to reach and not benefited from traditional services.

(Source: Peer Work in Australia. A New Future for Mental Health. 2018)

In the wake of COVID-19, many people are finding themselves on a new mental health journey. As someone who advocates in this space, what advice would you give?

Navigating the mental health system can be complex, as there are many pathways for care and support. It is important to ask for help, and I encourage people to see their GP (or access a Telehealth appointment) if they are not coping due to COVID-19.

I also refer people to the WA Mental Health Commission’s website as a reliable source of information about supports and services. Consider joining a support group via ConnectGroups (, who are the peak body for support groups in WA.

Do you have any advice for those interested in becoming a mental health consumer advocate?

Life-long learning is important to being an effective mental health consumer advocate.  I encourage people to access Consumer Representative training via Health Consumers’ Council and Consumers of Mental Health WA+.


*Grow is a community-based organisation that has helped tens of thousands of Australians recover from mental illness through a unique program of mutual support and personal development. To find out more, visit

+CoMHWA currently hosts the WA Peer Supporters’ Network (WAPSN), a network for and by peer supporters in Western Australia. You can join or find out more by contacting or contact (08) 9258 8911.

This article was originally published in Health Matters

Feedback and complaints – How and why you should share your experiences

Feedback is a good way of gaining information on areas of strength and areas that need to be improved. In healthcare, feedback can be a key way to improve patient safety and ensure ongoing quality improvement.

Whether your experience was good or bad, sharing your feedback could help raise awareness and lead to improvements.

But we know giving feedback or making a complaint isn’t always easy. In late 2019 we were commissioned by the Department of Health to support them in seeking consumer input about the process of making a complaint and giving feedback. Many people commented on how difficult it can be to find out how to give feedback or make a complaint.

Many people also responded that a prominent reason for not giving feedback was simply that they were not asked, saying there was an opportunity to increase ways to give feedback “in the moment”. People noted that in hospitality, you are asked for feedback at various stages in the process, and that this gave people an opportunity to address any issues when they arise. Ways of making it simpler to give feedback were discussed, including looking at how to use technology to encourage feedback from a wide range of people – for example, kiosks where people can quickly note 😊 or ☹ could help a service get a quick idea of how it’s doing, as well as making it easier for consumers for whom English may not be a first language to give feedback. We really encourage consumers to give feedback even when it’s not asked for, because feedback is the backbone of safety and quality improvements.

You can also keep an eye out for feedback forms that you may be given if you go to hospital (they may be in a folder near the bed) and speak to the person providing your care about how you can give feedback. By taking a look at our self-advocacy resources you can prepare for your doctor’s visit or hospital stay, which may help you feel more confident to ask questions and provide feedback.

You can give feedback verbally, in writing, by speaking directly to health service staff, to consumer or patient liaison staff, to Aboriginal Liaison Officers, or if given a follow up call after discharge from hospital. Many people commented that making a complaint, or sharing some positive feedback can feel like an extra thing to do after you’ve finished at a health service. One way that many people felt was a relatively easy way to give feedback was via Care Opinion Australia (previously known as Patient Opinion – see below).

While many people highlighted barriers to giving feedback that were discussed in these sessions, in the workshop with Aboriginal people, many people described how their experience of racism in the health system impacted on the likelihood and way they give feedback or make a complaint. We heard strongly there is much that needs to be done to ensure feedback mechanisms are accessible and culturally safe for Aboriginal people and will continue to advocate for this.

Many people spoke of how valuable it can be for people to have access to independent support to make complaints to health services. Health Consumers’ Council provides an individual advocacy service, as do a number of organisations like People With disability WA and Carers WA, but we know there are more people who could benefit from this support than are able to access it currently. Again, increasing access to advocacy support is something we will continue to argue for.

We’ve gathered some resources to help guide you on where and how you can give feedback. You can also call us on 9221 3422 or 1800 620 780 (country freecall) for advice on the best way to make a complaint, or for support in making a complaint.

Care Opinion Australia

Care Opinion Australia, previously known as Patient Opinion Australia, is an independent online platform for people to provide feedback on services.

At anyone can share their stories about their experience of care. The site covers health and aged care, and community services in Australia, giving service users, their families and carers the opportunity to publish their personal experiences, good or bad, of the care system.

Care Opinion works so well because it gives you a public, but anonymous, way to voice your experience about the services you use. The right people at the service or provider will see your experience and have the chance to respond.

Care Opinion is safe, confidential and independent of services and authorities. Additionally, reading the stories that other people share on Care Opinion may help you choose the best care providers.

If you are unable to write your story on the website, you can speak to Care Opinion in confidence on the phone by calling 1300 662 996 (mobiles may pay charges).

“A couple of years ago my daughter was admitted to hospital. Unfortunately there were some issues that arose during her stay and treatment, systemic issues that meant I didn’t really know who to address the feedback to. I had known about Patient Opinion [now called Care Opinion], that her experience would be public and that the hospital would be required to respond publicly. It seemed like a good way of raising the issues that we had, and it was. We received responses from the EDs of the services involved, which meant that the people at the top were aware of what had happened and were willing to make changes. Patient Opinion gave us the chance to tell our story, for it to be read by people who have the power to make changes and for us to feel like we were heard.”

How to make a complaint

Feedback can be a powerful way of improving the health system for yourself and others, however we recognise it can sometimes be a difficult or emotional path to travel. Health Consumers’ Council can support you through this process.

You can find resources to help you write a complaint to a hospital and apply for your medical resources on our Useful Links for Self Advocacy page.

The first step in making a complaint is to be clear about what the problem is and what exactly you are making the complaint about. This is sometimes called identifying the key issue.

You may then want to call the health service to ask about their complaint process (how you would go about making a complaint). Avoid going into details of the complaint unless you are sure the person you are speaking to is the one who receives complaints.

In some cases, we recommend making your complaint in writing. That way, someone becomes responsible for writing back to you, and your complaint is more likely to find its way to the right person or place for action. Always phone the service first to find out the name and title of the person you should write to. When submitting a complaint in writing, be firm but polite and keep your message to the point. If you do not have access to a computer, do not be put off – handwritten letters are fine.

Most, if not all, complaint agencies will allow you to have an advocate (someone who can act on your behalf) to help you put your complaint into writing if you are not confident about doing so yourself.

Health Consumers’ Council provides an advocacy service to assist health consumers in making complaints. We are an independent consumer advocate organisation and are able to support you through the process.


*This article was originally published in Health Matters