New Brisbane Group lobbying for those with mental illnesses

People diagnosed as mentally ill have formed Australia's first nationwide network to lobby for their rights as consumers of health services. "Politicians should know there's votes in mental health," the National Consumer Network's first chairman, Simon Champ, said today. Mr Champ, diagnosed as schizophrenic 20 years ago, is a member of the federal government's community advisory group on mental health and hails the new network as a major step forward for human rights. "Traditionally most mental health groups have been run by health professionals and carers," he said. "Although in most cases they are working for the same goals as we are, it is a very empowering thing for consumers to unify in this way in our own lobby group." The network today signed up its first 200 members at the 6th Annual Mental Health Services Conference of Australia and New Zealand in Brisbane, attended by more than 1,000 delegates from around the world.

Mr Champ said people with mental illnesses ranged across the boundaries of age, sex, race and religion and the network would reflect this diversity. It was estimated in the watershed Burdekin report of 1994 that one in five Australians would develop a mental disorder at some time in their lives, he said. "The trouble is that we are still oppressed by the stigma of carrying these labels." Mr Champ said the network offered a logistical challenge in linking "some of the poorest people in Australia".

Co-convenor of the conference, Melanie Scott, said the network would tackle issues such as federal budget cuts affecting services, but also aimed to educate the public about the nature of mental illness. "There's still a lot of ignorance," she said. "If people hear the word 'psychotic' they immediately think of a pantyhose murderer. "In schools, children get taught about sex, about drugs and other health issues, but mental illness is never mentioned."

People diagnosed as mentally ill had been marginalised by society despite the advances in psychotropic medication which allowed many to work and live outside institutions, she said. "It's time we stood up and took some pride in who we are - this network will enable many people to realise the power and potential they have, and to use their skills."

Consumers of mental health services were speaking out around the world in a social movement similar to the gay rights and feminist movements. "I compare it to the women's movement and I'd say we are now at about the same stage as the suffragettes at the beginning of the century in terms of realising our rights," Ms Scott said. AAP rr/pk

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