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Study Shows Service Users Can Improve Mental Health Care

A Canterbury academic remembers how disempowered she felt as a teenager receiving care through New Zealand’s mental health system.

Associate Professor Annabel Ahuriri-Driscoll and Senior Lecturer Dr Kaaren Mathias from UC’s Health faculty have explored how former patients can contribute to the mental healthcare system.

Now a public health researcher in Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) Faculty of Health, Associate Professor Dr Annabel Ahuriri-Driscoll is associate investigator for a new study exploring how people with direct experience of mental health services can make a valuable contribution to the system, making it kinder and more accessible for others.

The research, led by UC public health Senior Lecturer Dr Kaaren Mathias, received $109,994 from the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation (CMRF) in 2022, and is in its final stages.

Associate Professor Ahuriri-Driscoll says Aotearoa has a “significant mental health crisis” which is the driving force behind the new research.

“This work is a way to explore whether our services are responding to the needs and voices of patients and consumers,” she says. “It’s part of a movement over past decades – co-design is the current terminology – towards putting the person receiving the service at the centre and thinking about what’s working for them and what isn’t, and how we make those insights a more substantive part of service design and delivery.”

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Associate Professor Ahuriri-Driscoll has a strong interest in Māori mental health and her experiences as a mental healthcare inpatient gave her insight into the “absolute powerlessness” patients can feel.

“Mental health is an unseen aspect of our wellbeing that has been stigmatised for many years, and what I’ve heard as part of this research is that this issue persists, and it’s something we need to increase our efforts to address and remove,” she says.

Dr Mathias says engaging with people who have lived experience as service users and ensuring their perspective and expertise is included in the design and delivery of mental health services is a growing practice internationally.

“It’s increasingly recognised that it’s vitally important to the process to ensure mental healthcare is relevant and acceptable, but we found there’s been very little research and documentation of how it actually works.”

The UC research team interviewed 29 people on the West Coast and in Canterbury, including 18 with lived experience of mental health services and eight who are working in mental healthcare. Other interview subjects included service users and mental health programme managers.

The results showed that people who had experienced mental distress and were now working as peer support or consumer advisors were more likely to be able to connect with patients in an empathetic way, such as offering to meet them outside of a traditional clinical setting, going to the beach, or working together on making something.

“We found some really great examples of co-design improving the quality of care and making it more accessible and easier to engage with,” Dr Mathias says. “We hope our findings will guide others in how to increase participation of tāngata whai ora [meaning people who have experienced mental distress or people seeking health] and local communities and increase the quality and relevance of mental healthcare for all.”

Associate Professor Ahuriri-Driscoll says with health workforce shortages it’s important to explore non-clinician approaches and harness strengths that exist in the community.

“I think many kaupapa Māori providers are already engaging with people who have lived experiences of mental health providers and harnessing their expertise for peer support roles. It’s integral to how they work; based on building meaningful relationships with whānau and community. This is a real strength, and it’s an area that other providers are increasingly interested in.

“Services need to accommodate and respond to the whole of a person including their ethnicity, culture and beliefs, and if they can’t do that, then it’s not going to work.”

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