Family support for mentally unwell

Reaching retirement age was no barrier to Margaret Leggatt's work, writes Josh Jennings.

Reaching retirement age was no barrier to Margaret Leggatt's work, writes Josh Jennings.

One of the big drivers behind independent mental health care professional Margaret Leggatt's ongoing commitment to mental health care reform is the personal experiences and relationships she has had with individuals adversely affected by mental health issues.

In her time as the founding director of the Schizophrenic Fellowship of Victoria (1981-1995), whenever there was a suicide the deceased's survivors would come in "absolutely shattered and furiously angry", Leggatt recalls.

"I remember cases where the person was becoming very unwell and really quite violent, and families would call and say, 'Clinicians won't talk to us. What should we do?'

"The family breakdowns we'd often hear about were mainly fathers walking out because they could no longer stand what was going on in the house - we were working with a vast number of mothers left trying to manage all of this. It really was very grim. I think things are very slowly improving."

Leggatt continues to play her part in bringing about change today.

Working in a consultancy capacity in mental health family work, she says the objective of her role is to influence mental health services to involve families in their service provision as much as possible.

"Even government policies are now starting to change to say that families need to be listened to and have their needs assessed, and be helped."

Early in her career, Leggatt was employed as an occupational therapist in mental hospitals. In 1981, she received a Churchill Scholarship to study the rehabilitation of the seriously mentally ill in the UK, and in 1987 was awarded a member of the Order of Australia Association for service provision to people with schizophrenia and their families. Among her other wide-ranging career achievements, she was also the founder of the organisation now known as SANE, a senior research fellow at Deakin University and a mental health consultant in family work to the Victorian Mental Health Carers Network.

Recently, she also won an award for Exceptional Contribution to Mental Health Service in Australia at the Mental Health Services Conference 2013 Achievement Awards. She received the award in recognition of her commitment to promoting the need for the inclusion of families and carers in treatment, care planning and decision-making for people experiencing mental illness.

She continues to work well past the retirement age and, while it doesn't always sit well with her family, she says she's too committed to improving mental health services to stop.

"You don't stop; you just keep going whether you want to or not. There's part of me that would like to think, 'I've had enough now; I'd like to do other things'.

"But what I'm learning to do is to do other things, as well as staying in mental health."

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