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If you feel you have been mistreated by a clinician you may wish to make a complaint.

There are a large number of complaints that people might have, ranging from terrible abuses of trust and power through to poor communication and inability to provide a service.

The complaint method we choose to use depends on many things: the relevant complaints body; our need for privacy (and desire to not get 'a name for ourselves'); protection from further abuse; how public we want to be; how many times we've tried before to get our complaint addressed; and what services are available in our geographic area.

Some of the organisations listed in the previous section, particularly the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC) and the community legal centres may be able to help you with this.

It can be difficult to write a letter if you don't feel comfortable with your ability to express yourself in writing. But many of us don't want to talk about our complaint with others (this is one reason why many important complaints never get made).

Again, VMIAC or a community legal centre may be able to help those people who struggle with literacy or don't have access to a computer.

How do I know to whom to complain?

The nature of your complaint will determine where it should be sent. If you are uncertain about which is the appropriate body, read the information in this help sheet, which details the various organisations involved in dealing with complaints relating to the mental health system.

You may want to contact these bodies before you write anything to seek advice about what to include in your complaint and to whom to direct it. This will give you a feeling for which complaint body is best for your particular complaint. Ask:

Do I need help?

There are complaints and then there are complaints - those that involve serious breaches of trust or criminal acts (assault, rape, physical abuse or injury, for example) almost certainly require that you get some help.

For other less vile but still important complaints, there are many reasons people hesitate to seek help. Some of us are scared that we might be forced under the Mental Health Act to go back into the setting that we fear; some fear other repercussions (e.g. 'payback') could result from the complaint.

Some of us fluctuate between feelings of wanting and then not wanting to complain. This may depend on our nature, our supports, our confidence, our relationship with the clinician involved and the state of our mental and emotional health.

In these situations, our recommendation is to talk to someone from an organisation that makes it their business to help people make complaints. You don't have to go with what they recommend but they will be able to provide support and important knowledge about the complaint process.

Contact the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council or a community legal centre.

Some hints about making a complaint

Unfortunately, not all complaints are created equal. How you compose your complaint and to whom you direct it may have some bearing on how it is treated.

Here are some tips from consumers which may help you in framing your complaint.

Be sure that you actually do want to complain

Consider the pros and cons of making a complaint - is it worth it? If you decide it's not worth it now, write down the details in case you change your mind later.

In making your decision, ask yourself the following (be as honest as you can):

  1. Why do I really want to complain? Do I want to change practice for other consumers, or do I want resolution (and/or retribution) for myself?
  2. Does the behaviour truly warrant the effort I am about to undertake in making a complaint, or is it more to do with a personal foible, bugbear or crusade?
  3. Will my complaint expose any innocent third parties; if so, is this ethical?
  4. Will the articulation of the problem actually bring me the release/peace that I so much need?

Know how you want the matter resolved

Sometimes you won't be totally sure but it's important to think about what outcome you want from your complaint. Do you want a clinician struck off the register? Do you want your day in court? Do you want the whole system put under the magnifying glass - a Royal Commission into mental health services? Are you interested in being part of a class action where many consumers with very similar stories of harm come together with the same lawyers, maybe to set a new precedent in common law? Do you want to win a payout for lost income and reputation?

These are all possible outcomes, though in practice they are difficult to achieve. They require funds, lawyers and emotional resilience - all commodities that many of us have in limited supply.

Maybe you wish to have your complaint heard internally within the mental health system, or to get an apology from the clinician concerned and/or the system that employs him/her.

There are many less formal approaches to complaint-making. Getting to know the different options and the different organisations will help you to determine to whom you direct your complaint and it may also dictate some of the content. Often different approaches to making a complaint need different sorts of information in different forms. The more legal the process, the more detailed and sophisticated the information will need to be.

Seek advice - sometimes it's useful to talk to other patients; there is a lot of knowledge out there so don't let it go to waste. There are organisations which can advise you; again, consumer-based organisations such as VMIAC can be particularly helpful.

Keep records

Once you have decided on your preferred course of action (and, in fact, before that if possible), start keeping records. The more detailed and accurate your records are the better.

Take notes at meetings, note the dates, write down who was present, what was said, any undertakings that were made, and what the next steps are going to be. If you need to concentrate on speaking, co-opt a scribe to do the writing.

Do it in writing

A written complaint will often be more effective than a verbal one - it's set in stone (no one can dispute what you said), and it's harder to ignore.

A typed complaint may be better than a written one (if only because it cuts out the drama of someone having to read your handwriting). If you're in hospital, that might mean that you have to wait until you've been discharged and can get access to a computer.

If you do decide to submit a hand-written complaint, don't underline, don't use capitals, don't use too many exclamation marks, don't use red ink, and try to keep to all the principles of clear communication outlined below.

Be wary of using email. It can be viewed as informal and, like a verbal complaint, it can be easy to ignore. It's also a format that allows easy sharing of your (probably) very personal information among too many people. Emails are prone to being sent hastily, and before you've really thought through what you want to say.

Pay attention to your writing

If you don't have confidence in your written communication skills ask someone to help or to check or edit what you have written before you put it in the post.

Here are some of the things you may wish to pay attention to when composing a written complaint.

Open letters

An open letter is a letter designed for public consumption that you submit to newspapers, journals, newsletters or, perhaps, Facebook or the digital media (a blog, say) in general.

Some people also write an open letter to health ministers in state and territory governments, CEOs of non-government organisations, or directors of mental health departments.

Think carefully about doing this - are you really ready for your story to be in the public domain? Once the genie is out of the bottle it will be impossible to put it back in.

If you do go down this route, think carefully about how you sign off.

For letters to the editor, it is not always necessary to use your name; even those that do require a name will often allow us to have our name withheld from public view ('name supplied but withheld'). However, bear in mind that this may have the effect of perpetuating the view that 'mental illness' is something to be kept hidden at all costs.

Similarly, try not to sign an open letter with just a first name (Susan, Michael, Ahmed). This just reinforces the community perception that it's OK to treat people with 'mental illness' like children. If you want, perhaps you can use a pseudonym - a fake name but a full name.

Finally, consider seeking a legal opinion before you submit a letter designed for public consumption. It may be necessary to de-identify details such as the name of the hospital or the name of the clinician to protect yourself from being sued (or worse). The last thing we need is to end up in court charged with defamation.

The reality

Once you've started along the road of making a complaint, try to remain hopeful but realistic - unfortunately, few complaints in this area are resolved in a way that the complainant finds totally satisfactory.

Prejudice against people diagnosed with mental illness is rife and even bodies that are set up to protect the rights of patients sometimes start from the assumption that our thinking, our reality, our memories, our version of the story are more likely to be flawed because of the nature of the 'illness'.

Medicine is a powerful institution. It can be difficult to take it on. Complaints processes can be particularly hard ordeals for people with stress related 'illnesses'.

You may also come up against a phenomenon called 'closing ranks', whereby people tend to defend their colleagues as a matter of course, no matter what. (On the other hand, there are sometimes 'whistleblowers' who might appear out of the blue to support a complaint from a consumer.)

Issues of power may come to the fore. The organisation involved in the complaint will probably have access to your file. They may pathologise your complaint. They may feel the need to consult many people about the incident. They can stretch out this process for a long time and still come back with a reply you find unacceptable.

Don't forget that there are other processes, other organisations and other people to whom you can now turn if your complaint is rejected.

Of course, many (most?) people dealing with complaints are genuinely interested and concerned. You may well get a good response. When this happens, it's a good idea to let them know you are grateful - it will help smooth the path ahead for others.

Other resources

Here are some other useful resources on making a complaint: