In his professional life as a lawyer, John Feneley was frustrated to see the same disadvantaged people return repeatedly to the criminal justice system, imprisoned and dislocated from friends and family while mental health problems remained unaddressed.
In his private life, Mr Feneley witnessed a family member struggle for many years to find adequate support for a long-term mental illness, in a health system geared mainly to respond to crisis.
Both experiences convinced him that the NSW mental health system needed fundamental overhaul. “It was a unique opportunity to help to bring about change,” Mr Feneley says of his appointment in July 2012 as the first NSW Mental Health Commissioner, charged with reviewing and improving the state’s response to mental illness.
Mr Feneley credits the mental health consumer movement, and its insistence on recovery, choice and autonomy, with setting the scene for system reforms - focused on better support in the community – that have stalled in the past.
Governments, too, are primed for change, he says, with the advent of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and other initiatives that emphasise care and support delivered to individuals, rather than to hospitals or services.
But change – even when the need for it is well recognized – is challenging to achieve.
“The hardest thing is bringing people with you,” Mr Feneley says. “You don’t want to insult people who are working very hard every day and doing the best with what they’ve got. The conversation about reform can, unintentionally, seem to trivialise the effort that people in the front line are already making.”
As a young child, Mr Feneley recalls visiting his psychiatrist grandfather, Dr Charles Egan, at the Gladesville Hospital campus where the Commission’s offices now stand. His mother grew up in a house on the site, when it was one of NSW’s largest institutions for involuntary psychiatric patients, who continued to be detained there as recently as the early 1990s.
His own family’s three-generation connection with mental health care reminds Mr Feneley that, “Government is a behemoth. It’s slow to change and if you get it wrong you’ll be on that path for a long time.”
But Mr Feneley, who describes himself as motivated by, “fairness, and a basic respect for people’s rights,” believes that the path towards better mental health is now much clearer. “A lot of the heavy lifting has already been done,” he says. “Our challenge now is to take it and run with it.”
John Feneley’s previous roles include Deputy President of the Mental Health Review Tribunal, Assistant Director General at the NSW Attorney Generals Department, and Deputy Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
He has also served on the Board of the Schizophrenia Fellowship, and government boards and committees such as the Youth Justice Advisory Committee, the Child Death Review Team and the Legal Profession Admission Board.
He was a member of the Expert Reference Group which advised on the review of the NSW Mental Health Act 2007, resulting in the Mental Health Amendment (Statutory Review) Bill 2014.