It was while working as a young graduate in inner city Sydney, designing and delivering public housing for communities in Waterloo, that Catherine Lourey first saw up close just how often mental illness courses through people’s lives.
“Some community members were facing issues and challenges such as financial hardship that were contributing to their poor mental health. For others, mental illness was the reason they had found themselves in public housing in the first place.”
The longer she worked in public housing, the more Ms Lourey became convinced that health care was the best lever to pull to improve people’s lives: when people are well they can pursue education, employment, have a better chance of avoiding poverty and of raising healthy, thriving families.
A similar holistic view, boldly laid out in the Living Well strategic plan created by the NSW Mental Health Commission, attracted her to the organisation many years later, eventually becoming its Commissioner in 2017.
However, her career started with a narrower focus: improving the effectiveness of health services to meet the needs of local communities. She began working with the Western Sydney Area Health Service, using her service planning qualifications to plan health care services across palliative care, maternity, community health and mental health. Later she would work for 12 years for the NSW Department of Health, traveling around the state working with local services and mental health teams to design and plan services for mental health exclusively.
Throughout her career, Ms Lourey has fought to keep the individual using the service – often vulnerable, socially isolated and distressed – at the centre of all decisions. She successfully overhauled, for example, NSW Government guidelines on the design of inpatient units to stipulate that new mental health facilities had to have single rooms rather than shared rooms, to give people the best chance of feeling safe and making a recovery. She also learnt that a collaborative, multidisciplined, inclusive approach was key to achieving successful project outcomes.
In 2012, an opportunity came knocking to work at the newly established National Mental Health Commission. Ms Lourey leapt at it.
“To be able to work in an environment where for the first time lived experience was actively at the heart of our values and focus was wonderful. It had been the missing link in all the other roles I had pursued. The National Mental Health Commission finally took all the work that consumer advocates and peer workers had been doing for decades, and elevated lived experience to the primary place it deserved.”
At the Commission Ms Lourey worked alongside renowned consumer and carer advocates including Janet Meagher and Jackie Crowe, and eminent national leaders in mental health and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing, to develop two national report cards on mental health and later a national review of mental health services and programs for the Commonwealth Government. That review is the origin of many mental health reforms rolling out across Australia today, including the move to more localised coordination of mental health and suicide prevention services via Primary Health Networks, rather than national one-size-fits-all approaches.
In 2015, she joined the NSW Mental Health Commission to lead the development of its first report to the NSW Government on the progress of the Living Well reforms, and was later appointed as the first full-time NSW Deputy Mental Health Commissioner.
After 30 years working in the sector, Ms Lourey has never seen such a time of opportunity to envision a networked and collaborative approach for mental health and wellbeing services and supports. At the national, state and community levels mental health reform is being forged. This means new connections and networks will be developed across sectors, between sectors and with people with lived experience and carers, where improving outcomes across the domains of a person’s life will be at the centre of discussions and decisions.
These discussions involve communities and people living with mental health issues and their supporters; clinicians, mental health professionals and peer workers; government, community managed and private providers; researchers and leaders. It is a time for collective action.
“Armed with evidence, collective purpose and government commitment, there is no excuse for agencies and stakeholders to not be active participants and leaders in mental health reform. It is why the NSW Mental Health Commission needs to be here: to remind people that we all play a part in reducing the impacts of mental illness and supporting recovery, to foster that empathy and ambition to change, and to hold people to account when they fail to take up the challenge.”