Cath Roper works at Melbourne University with mental health nursing students.IT’S A good thing Cath Roper, who is no grudge holder, can appreciate the ironic reversal in her relationship with the state of Victoria.

During 13 years of involuntary admissions to state psychiatric hospitals, Ms Roper was forcibly injected, thrown into solitary confinement, left to defecate and urinate without facilities and on one occasion sexually assaulted by a charge nurse.

In a remarkable turnaround, the same state health department now pays Ms Roper to work at Melbourne University, where she teaches new generations of mental health nursing students to treat tomorrow’s patients somewhat better.

Researchers and health bureaucrats say the arrival of people with openly declared experiences of mental illness into influential positions is improving mental health care and lives across Australia.

Sought out for their ”expertise by experience”, these mental health ”consumers”, as many call themselves, are conducting high-level research, working openly in government departments and even running a few mental health services staffed exclusively by people who have experienced mental illness.

Tomorrow, in an initiative welcomed by consumer representatives, Victoria’s Department of Health will introduce bi-monthly meetings between the state’s most senior mental health bureaucrats and about 50 ”consumer consultants”, all of whom have experiences of mental illness.

So is Ms Roper, a former public school teacher who was pushed out of her job after one of her hospitalisations – only to later become Australia’s first permanent ”consumer academic” – bitter about the Victorian state’s oddly bipolar attitude towards her?

”It has been remarkable, but no, I’m not a grudge holder,” Ms Roper says. ”And the beauty of this form of teaching is that the painful things you’ve experienced become fodder and inspiration – they’re incubated into learning for the students.”

Southern Health’s mental health program director of carer and consumer relations, Vrinda Edan, says consumers should be ”much more involved in policy”.

”Consumers,” says Ms Edan, who has been given multiple diagnoses, ”are people who, because they have lived through very high levels of distress, are the real experts in how to overcome that.”

In New South Wales, consumer advocate and service manager Janet Meagher was recently appointed an Australian mental health commissioner by the federal government. She has lived with schizophrenia since the 1970s.

Queensland consumer and former teacher Jude Bugeja manages a public residential mental health service run and exclusively staffed by people with an experience of mental illness. ”We have walked the walk,” the founding manager of the service, called Brook RED, told The Age, ”and it’s natural for someone [experiencing mental distress] to seek support and ideas from … someone who has ‘been there’.”

Meanwhile, Queensland’s health department has chosen a mental health services consumer, Rick Austin, to manage its Consumer, Carer and Family Team.

At least one person with a declared experience of mental illness is known to be employed in the Victorian health department’s mental health division.

However it is not always smooth sailing for consumers involved in the health sector.

International studies have found that medically oriented health professionals, such as psychiatrists, are among the least enthusiastic about involving consumers in mental health care.

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