Lucy Brogden — wife and carer of John Brogden, the former NSW Liberal leader who attempted suicide — has revealed she and her National Mental Health Commission colleagues were moved to tears during their first visit to Dubbo on Thursday.
The commission hosted a public forum where 40 community members spoke about their mental health experiences.
"To turn up in a public forum, to talk about issues in their family or their own mental illness is quite a courageous thing to do," Ms Brogden said.
"These people came and spoke incredibly humanely and compassionately about their experiences.
"We have never had such a big turnout from service providers or the community as we've had on this visit."
Ms Brogden told the Daily Liberal some people who attended drove from surrounding towns and formed new connections with others at the forum.
"Many of us were moved to tears," she said.
"Some of it through the poor experiences people have had, but also through the incredible strength of experience people have had."
The forum followed a day of meetings the commissioners had with police, emergency, education and health services.
"The strong message was that we have to shift the focus to prevention; we need good services but let's focus on preventing some of these outcomes before it gets to where it's ending up at the moment," Ms Brogden said.
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"The powerful thing about mental illness, and the frustrating thing, is that for many people it's inherently preventable."
Ms Brogden said a major frustration forum participants had related to mental health services that are bureaucratic, disjointed and lacking a human touch.
"A lot of services are very metropolitan-centric in their design and the design of those services fails to recognise the huge distances people are needing to travel to access those services," she said.
Stigma and a fear of being judged were other key challenges forum participants spoke about.
"Some people were talking about feeling like people were whispering about them when they were walking down the street," Ms Brogden said.
"There's no need to be scared or fearful of someone with a mental illness. These are people that deserve our love and care."
Community members, colleagues and friends can provide basic support that will go a long way to helping people with mental illness, Ms Brogden said,
"Sit quietly and have a cup of tea with someone, listen and truly hear their story and validate where they are at or provide a safe space to focus on what's troubling them," she said.
New ways to take services to more people need to be found, Ms Brogden said — whether it be through technology or more staff on the road travelling into country communities.
"Attracting and retaining quality service providers is also important but if we've got good prevention strategies in place then we will start to diminish the demand we place on needing clinical psychologists and psychiatrists.
"Not everything works in the system, but there's a huge strength in the communities out here to improve the systems they have and to support each other."
A qualified psychologist, Ms Brogden said it was caring communities, friends and family members that helped her get through difficult periods.
"I was appointed to the commission as a carer," she said.
"My husband lives very publicly with his own issues to do with mental illness and suicidal experiences.
"When my husband was unwell five people managed to get their keys to our house and they cleaned it. They didn't ask they just came in.
"Don't ask them what you can do, just do something to help," Ms Brogden said.
"Mow the lawn, drop something off, a card. Be kind, be human.
"These are marathon journeys not sprints."
Feedback from the forum and meetings will be used to advise the federal government what is and isn't working in the mental health space.