Flourish expands program offering via training pathway

Over the past two years, Flourish, in Tasmania, has certainly lived up to its name. A strong focus on capacity development and opportunity creation has assisted individuals in often unforeseen ways. As a by-product, the small mental health organisation has quadrupled its funding and its services spectrum.  The pool of available consumer representatives has also grown by 300% over the past two years.

Outgoing CEO Klaus Baur says he can trace many of these astonishing achievements back to a single informal chat and a two-page funding application.

“When I started as CEO, we were quite small, and while titled ‘CEO’ I was equally admin, cleaner, social media, PR and member liaison, and much more,” he said.

“Our mission is to facilitate for people with lived experience of mental health to be able to have input into mental health policy and services. The provision of pathways for capacity development appeared critical to fulfill this mission and purpose.

“But the clarity and structure of what we do as an organisation was not as good as it could be and some team members with lived experience of mental health were not clear what opportunities were available; and how to add their voice.”

Klaus said his discussions with the team identified Health Issues Centre’s two accredited consumer leadership courses as potential capacity development for Flourish members and he mentioned it casually in a meeting with executives from Primary Health Tasmania (PHT).

“I shared that our vision was – to one day – run the Course in Consumer Leadership (10163NAT) and to offer it to existing and aspiring consumer representatives,” he said. “To my surprise, Primary Health Tasmania really liked that and expressed their appreciation of Flourish’s input into PHT’s policy and planning work and I was told, ‘We would like to see a submission about this course’.

“We went away and discussed it in the office, with volunteers and members, and we wrote a two-page document. It all happened really fast.”

The first course was a test case in how upskilling consumers could add value.  It was the first time this course was offered in Tasmania.  It was a smashing success.  “We had 15 people in the first Course in Consumer Leadership (10163NAT) and 14 graduated,” Klaus said.

“Previously, we had feedback that organisations weren’t sure what they were getting from our consumer representative service. Offering a state-wide service, Flourish had a comparatively small number of active ‘consumer reps’.  Naturally, services would often encounter the same reps again and again and no doubt heard the same experiences and opinions.

“Suddenly we had all these people coming out of the course with these new competencies and confidence and skills, and with a bit of extra mentoring, were ready to give it a go. We went from 10 consumer representatives to a possible pool of 25; and with 15 to 17 willing to become consumer reps – which is huge.”

Until then Flourish had a fairly stable pool of active consumer reps for a period of seven or eight years.  The leap from being a mental health consumer and Flourish member to being a consume rep on committees, working parties and interview panels had proven literally impossible to make for most.”

Klaus said the difference was noticed immediately by organisations.

“What we observed over the coming months was that consumer reps who had done the training were solid in their performance. This worked two-fold, the feedback they received was good for them and for us.  The stronger point was that their skills and confidence were continuously and positively reinforced, based on the training and continuing support, with confidence or lack of confidence being a significant issue for anyone who experiences a period of mental ill health.”

“There was a clear correlation between organisational clients who were obviously happy being supported by newly trained consumer representatives and a broadening of the lived-experience voice overall.”

Repeating the experiment

After the success in the south of Tasmania (Hobart), Klaus wanted to expand the program into the north and north west and ran a second intake of the course.

“We were more organised the second time and nineteen people completed the Course in Consumer Leadership (10163NAT); and all of them were willing to become consumer representatives,” he said.

“That meant in total we had a potential pool of about 25-30 people willing to be a consumer rep – which is an increase of almost 300% across the entire state.

“We had also clearly become multi-cultural and had CALD representation for the first time since the inception of Flourish”

A timely expansion

The explosion of new talent happened just in the nick of time. Shortly after the graduates completed their course The Tasmanian Mental Health Directorate and the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist embarked on a significant reform program, aligning its work with known and proven national and international good practice.

“As part of that program, requests for consumers representatives experienced a three to four-fold increase, as consumer input was sought on policy, strategy and various sub-committees or working parties,” Klaus said.

“For the first time we were in a position to recommend the use of consumer reps on additional projects or initiatives, because we were able to then ‘deliver’ and fill these roles, in turn offering more opportunities for consumer reps.

“All the key stakeholders in the sector responded very positively to this bottom up push from an organisation where 90% of all staff and volunteers and more than half the Board have a lived experience.

“Without that increase in numbers from the training we would never have been able to meet that quota.”

The human impact

One of the unforeseen but greatly treasured side-effects of the training was the impact on participants, according to Klaus.

“Sometimes we forget about the consumer benefits – the human value – when you look at what happens to people’s lives,” he said.

“The most heart-touching and wonderful part was seeing how both, workplace competencies and confidence of people becoming consumer reps led to them gaining other opportunities that led to stable employment for some of the team members.  This is quite incredible, where some people have not had opportunities or achievements like that for 20 or 30 years, being held within a cycle or periods of illness and not-enough recovery gains.

“Everyone watches that and says, ‘Despite a background of being challenged by mental health for a long time, my friends get a job – that could be me’.”

He said the training inadvertently provided a new pathway for Flourish members, as well as a new stream of work.

“Because people had formal training in consumer rep work, they develop core competencies. A couple of trained reps got peer work positions, so a couple of hours a week as consumer reps then became two to three days a week in peer work,” he said.

“We then secured funding for a $300,000 peer work program that is scheduled now to run for three years. It was a second huge amount of funding to offer a second pathway to people with lived experience to find employment and fulfilment.

“I link a lot of it to the formal training we added. We always had consumer rep program. Now we also have a peer work program. Shortly afterwards, we developed a workplace mental health awareness program. Then we developed a focus on member capacity building and development. It all came about because an always very passionate group of mental health consumers stuck their heads and hearts together and their passion, energy and experience delivered additional or clearer direction too.”

Klaus said the seed of all this activity was training.

“We achieved a four-fold funding increase in two years, we were able to expand the range of activities we were offering, sector confidence in all that Flourish stands for clearly became stronger. The numbers showed more confidence to use consumer reps, feedback processes supported this, and people could see the value,” he said.

“This is important beyond the Flourish and service provider relationships. The unique expertise of a mental health consumer is critical to get services right and ensure that services meet the expectations and needs of the community.

“The benefits of Health Issues Centre’s training are massive and, given the direct and indirect benefits we experienced, every mental health consumer service and mental health/health service should have a very close look at it. For a small organisation like Flourish, the effects were transformative.”

If you are interested in reading more about the Course in Consumer Leadership (10163NT), click here.

Klaus is now an independent consultant, you can connect with him here.