Louise Byrne is one of a new wave of ‘lived experience’ educators at CQ (Central Queensland) University who are paving the way for positive improvements in how Australia approaches mental health.

After a decade of traumatic mental illness treatment, confusion and pain, Ms Byrne is now at the frontline of an award-winning new mental health nursing program that eschews teaching the traditional ‘take your medicine’ mantra and connects nursing students with teachers that have a ‘lived experience’ of mental illness.

Centre Director Professor Brenda Happell says including ‘lived experience’ educators was integral to changing out-dated nursing methods and attitudes.

Professor Happell says recent internal research revealed the program was also helping to destigmatise the issue of mental health among prospective nurses.

“Our research shows students taught by ‘lived experience’ educators have a much more positive attitude towards people with mental health issues… and there is greater interest among nursing students in pursuing a career in mental health, which is traditionally an unpopular speciality,” Professor Happell says.

“It is a completely different approach compared to the old method of ‘here is your medication, take it’, but it is slowly becoming part of mental health policy,” Professor Happell says.

CQ University academic Ms Byrne says to deliver the program’s goals she uses her experience and understanding of mental illness, recovery, and the stigma associated with mental health issues.

“I accessed mental health services from my mid-teens – sometimes voluntary, sometimes involuntary…the diagnosis and the stigma attached, particularly as a young person, were very damaging for me.

“I was hospitalised again in my mid-20s, which included treatment that left me incapacitated and unable to engage with life at all – something that took a very long time to recover from,” she says.

Ms Byrne’s harrowing past is now an invaluable resource for the future as she teaches the next generation of mental health nurses to help service users control their own healing.

Ms Byrne explains how the program changed the life and views of one of her middle aged male students who had a negative view of the mental health system due to having experienced life with a mother who had a mental health illness.

“After the program he sent me an email with how much the course had changed his life and his relationship with his mother… it really challenged the ideas he had previously had of consumer involvement in mental health,” she says.

Ms Byrne says she is really excited that the program is inspiring nursing students to pursue a career in mental health.

“Being inspired to get involved is an encouraging result, the fact they have empathy and can put aside their own stuff and help with recovery is great,” she says.

She believes her experience wasn’t completely necessary and lived experience educators will play a crucial role in making things simpler and more accessible in the healing journey.

Ms Byrne says in the program they communicate that mental health consumers aren’t just ‘patients’, but real people with hopes, dreams and desires beyond their mental illness.

“In this way, rather than nurses imposing a particular treatment on the situation, they walk together with service users in more effective partnerships.

She says the general public also need to understand the new way of doing things as it can literally make a difference between life and death.

The CQ University Mental Health Nursing Program was honoured with a prestigious 2013 Open Minds Mental Health Week Award in October in the organisational category for leading the way in Australia and internationally for consumer involvement in mental health nursing and research.