Providing Mental Health Solutions Inside Parliament and in the Community
19 March 2018 at 8:24 am
Amanda Bresnan is the executive director of Community Mental Health Australia, and has previously served as a Greens MP in the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Bresnan has had a long involvement in the health and community sector, working for organisations such as ACT Health, Mental Health Australia and the Consumer Health Forum of Australia.
From 2008 to 2012, she was a Greens MP for the electorate of Brindabella in the ACT Legislative Assembly, where her portfolio included areas like disability and mental health.
In 2016 she was appointed as the inaugural executive director of CMHA, which is a coalition of the eight state and territory peak community mental health organisations in Australia.
In this week’s Changemaker, Bresnan talks about her connection to the mental health sector, how community groups can effectively lobby politicians, and why she’s put a call out to the Brisbane Broncos and the NRL.
What is your history working in politics and the community sector before coming to CMHA?
I worked at Mental Health Council Australia, which is now Mental Health Australia, as their director of policy projects for about three years and prior to that also worked for Consumer Health Forum of Australia on their e-health project there. So I had lots of links to mental health issues and disability and privacy issues particularly for mental health.
And then I was elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly for four years as an MP and I had in my portfolio a whole range of topics including disability and health and obviously quite a bit on mental health, because that was my background. I think I got some good achievements in those areas as an MP. And then after that I worked as a consultant with John Mendoza, who used to be the CEO of Mental Health Council, doing primarily disability mental health work. I’ve worked for the College of Mental Health Nurses as well and then came to CMHA. So I have been in the space for quite some time.
So what drew you to your current role at CMHA?
Mental health has always been a very strong interest for me and that’s due to personal connections. I think most people have got someone they know or a friend or family member who has had a mental illness. I think it also comes up in just about every single part of social policy. So it’s something I’ve got a strong policy interest in but a strong personal interest in as well.
I was drawn to CMHA because the state and territory peaks are really the ones who through their work, and also the work of their members, are on the ground every day delivering services. They see what happens to people when there’s a national policy and they see how that is actually having an impact on the ground. Particularly now with the NDIS and programs like PHaMs [Personal Helpers and Mentors Service], it’s all linked and it’s all being impacted.
So it was very much I think an opportunity to get back in and work in that space and work with the states and territories which I enjoyed doing when I was at Mental Health Council.
CMHA has spoken about the need for a continuity of support with the NDIS, how can this be achieved?
Well as we all know, the NDIS is having a huge, significant impact on mental health services and how they’re going to be structured and how they’re going to roll out into the future. Continuity of support is a concept which has been put forward by the Department of Social Services, Department of Health and the NDIS for people who won’t be found eligible for the NDIS. So [this means] they’ll keep getting the same sorts of services that they’re receiving.
However the problem has been that we still don’t actually have a policy on continuity of support and I haven’t heard any government official be able to say what continuity of support actually looks like in practice. And with somewhere like the ACT, [even with] a small population that’s at full roll out, continuity of support isn’t happening there at the moment. So with the absence of having a policy, CMHA developed a policy in consultation with all the states and territories, basically saying what we think continuity of support would look like. And it was actually about having structures which provided people in federal programs, but also people who were ineligible, with some coordination and support to give them that real connection to services that people need.
So without that people won’t have continuity of support and again that hasn’t been articulated by anybody. I think that sort of policy and how that rolls out is going to be absolutely crucial to the people who aren’t going to be eligible. And as a sector, they’re some of the people we’re most concerned about; the people in federal programs like PHaMs and PIR [Partners in Recovery] who aren’t going to be eligible and people who are going to keep coming through the system that would have benefitted from PHaMs and PIR that now won’t have it and aren’t going to be eligible for NDIS. We need to know what actually happens to them and I think it’s something we’ve got to keep doing so we don’t have people falling through the cracks, because that’s what we’re very concerned about.
Community groups and peak bodies often lobby politicians to try and achieve policy change. You have been on both sides of the fence as a politician and now again in the community sector. What did you learn from your time in politics about how these organisations can effectively lobby policy makers?
Well as an MP I’ve been lobbied badly and I’ve been lobbied well. And what I’ve learned is that one of the really important things for community groups to do when lobbying an MP is not to just go with a problem. We can very easily identify what the problems are, but [we want] the solution. Because you might find when you’re talking to MPs, that they actually will take an idea and actually go through and implement it.
So I think that’s really important now in this space, particularly with the NDIS. And that’s one of the reasons why we developed the continuity of support position statement, to say “look we see it’s a problem but this is what we think the solution is”. It’s the same when you do budget submissions, it should put in place solutions which can actually be implemented and ones which government can actually make a part of the budget. I think that’s one of the really crucial things, to go there with things that can actually be done, because you might be surprised that an MP will take something and carry that forward.
I think it’s also important not to overwhelm people, because we do have quite big reforms happening that are creating challenges. You need to go forward with a process which says “this is how we think it can be addressed and this is how it can be done in a structured way and a strategic way”. And I think that’s really important and part of it as well.
That’s something which I try to do when talking to MPs, [to show] we can actually work together and work with governments to achieve a solution and that’s a really crucial part of it.
What does a typical day for your involve as executive director of CMHA?
Well today I’m at an all-day forum so I can do a couple of those a week. So that can be a typical day, going to a forum like this meeting different people. I’ve just been speaking to a service provider from Cairns which is really interesting, because they’re just starting to transition to the NDIS this year. So a lot of my day does revolve around speaking to people across the country and hearing what issues are happening there.
But in a typical day I go in and answer a lot of emails. And every day I’ll be speaking to some of the staff or CEOs from one of the other peaks. Yesterday I spoke to someone in the ACT, someone in Victoria and someone in Northern Territory. So a lot of my day does revolve around speaking to people across the country and trying to keep up with the latest submissions which have to be done.
I know the sector’s been really overwhelmed at the moment with a number of submissions, so typically my day will be scanning to make sure there’s no other inquiry which I have to put a submission into. And obviously I’m talking to departments and MP offices. So it is hard to talk about a typical day but it does usually involve all of those elements, from speaking to people across the country, to speaking to departments and writing a policy, or writing a submission and meeting with somebody about various issues.
And that can be anywhere, from a provider in Cairns I just met, to tomorrow morning where I’m meeting someone from the AFPA, the Australian Federal Police Association. So I think there’s lots of people interested in mental health and that’s what I’m really finding in my role, that every day I get contacted by someone in a different part of the system or in social services who has got an interest in it, because it does touch so many areas.
What do you like to do in your spare time away from work?
I will admit that I’m an absolutely fanatical Brisbane Broncos supporter, because I grew up in Queensland. And so as I said to someone, that’s probably the only thing in my life where I have absolutely no perspective, it just goes completely out the window when it comes to my football team. I also do Bollywood dancing, that’s one thing which I find good because we listen to great music and get exercise.
I love to travel as well and have been to India twice. It’s a place that really captured me. I do yoga once a week and also like to walk my dog. I’ve got a Kelpie so she needs lots of exercise, and I take her on big hour long walks on the weekend.
You mentioned on your Twitter profile that you’re an “aspiring rugby league commissioner and/or Bollywood star”. So what do you think you would be doing if you weren’t involved in the political and community sectors?
I don’t know. I think this is always where I was going to go. I was never involved in student politics at uni but I was always interested in politics. I think heading in that direction and the community sector was kind of always where I was going to go. I did study environmental studies at uni, so I did think I would probably be working in the environment sector, but health is just where I went. I [worked at] ACT Health and again I think because of personal interest, it’s just where I gradually started going.
I’m probably a bit too old to be a Bollywood star now, but I’m always putting the call out to Brisbane Broncos or the NRL. If you need a commissioner or a CEO, I’m here and I’m ready to go and do that!
Is there anything you are reading or watching at the moment?
Well I’m a huge Margaret Atwood fan, who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. And seeing the TV adaptation of that had a really big impact on me. I mean the book had a big impact on me when I first read it many years ago. Women’s issues and feminism are something I’m very interested in, having been a female MP and experiencing things as a female MP.
That TV series did such a wonderful job of putting that book to life and seeing it actually in front of you, not just reading it, it had a really big impact on me I found it quite hard to watch at times. I just thought it was a book all men and women should read because I think some of the things we’re seeing happening around the world at the moment are a little frightening, and I think we’ve always got to remember why as a community we want equality and why women’s rights in particular are important.
Seeing that translation was a really important and timely piece of work, as the book was at the time. It’s got a whole new generation of people reading it which is great, because it’s a really important piece of writing.