Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community


The consumer movement is presently under-resourced to provide all the training that is needed. The psychiatric disability support sector is creating organisation-specific training teams, some of which are consumer specific (such as Voices Vic), and VMIAC provides some basic training, as well as some peer support training.

The training that is described here is brand new - essential, but new.

Educating consumers

One phenomenon we find intriguing is the seemingly unending need to train consumers to sit on committees. The training that tends to be provided is not 'bad' knowledge to have; it's just not the most important learning that needs to take place. Knowing what meeting minutes are might be mildly useful, but knowing who actually controls them is much more important!

Most consumers can read. We encourage committees to publish the concrete, uncomplicated, not-about-power, nitty-gritty information (such as how to keep minutes) in booklet form. The booklet can be handed out to consumers who are interested.

People who don't speak English as a first language and people with limited literacy also have a right to have a say on committees they believe can benefit from their expertise. Responsibility for enabling this lies with the secretariat.

Many organisations and bureaucracies believe it is consumers themselves who are asking for training in the pragmatic - taking minutes and the like. They believe they are responding to demand. Certainly some consumers will want to practise role-playing or to have their confidence bolstered in some other way to complement the written information in the booklet.

But we should be asking ourselves why consumers are asking for this sort of training. An almost universal legacy of 'mental illness' is a loss of confidence, self denigration and, worst of all, profound shame. Many of us don't believe we can do anything. Of course, if we are uneducated, we are going to freak out at the visible structures and strictures of official meeting protocols. At this stage we ask for training about the mores that frighten us.

We don't ask for training about the invisible issues of power, institutions, agency and consumer perspective because at that point we often don't know that this body of knowledge exists, or that these things might be an issue. Training in these invisible aspects of committee work often takes an empathetic outsider, a competent consumer educator, who will help us take the first steps towards empowered membership on 'other people's committees' (a term coined by Flick Grey to describe the familiar bureaucratic committee model). This person needs to be someone who will not default to the easy training agenda of meeting procedures and rules of play.

After undertaking training in the issues of power, institutions, agency and consumer perspective, some would-be committee members will decide not to join the committee after all. It's better not to join a committee than to join one that may cause harm.

Educating committees

Many consumers who have been offered training to sit on committees believe that in fact it is the committees themselves that should be trained in understanding how committees work from a consumer's point of view.

Many people don't understand why consumers should be included on committees. Many secretly think it's a waste of time, effort or both. Many are confused and often defensive.

Often organisations want to believe they are looking after 'the most vulnerable people in the community', and when these vulnerable people start sounding quite smart and challenging them in meetings they are either dismissive or convinced we are intruders of some sort.

There is a vital but rarely met need for consumer-delivered education. We need to teach lay people (non-consumers) about consumer perspective, the use of consumer voice, the role of consumer views, and especially sociological contexts that privilege certain discourses and disadvantage others.

In many cases, lay committee members have no idea what they don't know in relation to consumer perspective and consumer expertise, and how this lack of knowledge is exhibited on committees. And if laypeople from within the sector need orientation and training in understanding the role of consumers on committees, then people co-opted from business, law, accountancy, social security and other non-aligned areas have an even greater need. The effects of their lack of knowledge are accentuated because they have been invited onto the committee specifically for their skills. Power has this effect.

If we can't convince the CEO of the need for training, this is another example of institutional power at work. Without proper training, there is a risk that committees will continue to perceive consumers as walking, talking storybooks, with the risk of abuse that this entails.

Secretariats, too, need training from consumers. Without it, it's only natural that they too will operate in a way that privileges the privileged and silences those with less social capital, particularly when they are bamboozled by the institutional power of other people on the committee.

The educators

Among consumers there are many qualified educators. There are consumers with TAFE qualifications, degrees, higher degrees and many years of practical experience in education.

Educators who have a first-hand understanding of consumer perspective and a strong understanding of the consumer body of knowledge are best placed to help committee members to acquire the skills and insights they need to work effectively with consumers on committees. They are also best placed to provide training to other consumers.

We desperately need to develop a Directory of Consumer Educators in Victoria. Until that happens, here are two important networks that may be able to assist:

Resource 1: workshops

Following is an outline of two workshops that can be used to train committees in the material outlined above. These workshops are underpinned by the design and findings of the 1999 report Learning Together: Education and Partnerships in Mental Health by Deakin Human Services Australia (, and also by the board game Lemon Looming, a learning tool designed by Sara Clarke (

The success of the Learning Together Project taught us a great deal about how the different groups in mental health relate to each other, wield power and attempt to sabotage learning and meeting opportunities if their power base feels threatened. It is on the web and the introduction, at least, should be compulsory reading for these workshops.

This Learning Together Project taught us about the education of mental health clinicians and about deficiencies in their training. It taught us about the competitive relationships different groups of clinicians have with one another. It taught us that some clinical groups were very uncomfortable with group decision-making. Most of all, it taught us about deliberately setting up situations in which consumers can remain in control and deliberately challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about power without having to do or say anything.

The Lemon Looning board game is yet another example of a well-designed teaching tool being timeless. Like Learning Together, the board game is designed to set up situations where people experience powerlessness rather than listen to us talking about it.

They are hard workshops to run but when we pull them off the learning potential is huge. The board games are available at VMIAC but can't be used without training. Our Consumer Place has staff with expertise in running these workshops effectively.

The workshops are designed to be run by consumer educators and offered to consumers and all other committee members before the committee begins to meet. They are designed to enable consumers to take part in educating committee members about consumer perspective in a way that is honourable, informed, empowered, non-angry (except when necessary), comfortable, non-silenced, non-compliant and non-stereotyped.

The workshops are not meant as 'education for consumers'. They are designed for consumer educators to educate all sorts of people who sit on 'other people's committees'.

Nevertheless, some consumers will resist the offer of this training because they are, they say, already experienced in committee work. Getting through this opposition is important. What many, although not all, consumers in this position mean is that they are experienced at sitting on committees as they are presently understood. The existing model works for some consumers but marginalises, stigmatises and harms others. The risks of the existing model include:

  1. painless but ineffective consumer participation;
  2. consumers feeling backed into a corner and operating in a way that might be effective but may also cause further prejudice against consumer participation;
  3. harm being caused to consumers;
  4. fighting between consumers.

The workshops are run by consumers, which in itself conveys the important message that consumers are authorities. In order for the workshops to be successful, the participation of so-called 'important people' - the chair, the lawyer, the psychiatrist, and so on - is crucial. Without their participation, there is a risk that the workshops will be preaching mainly to the converted.

Workshop one (2 hours)

The purpose of this two-hour workshop is to bring all committee members - including consumers, the secretariat, lawyers, carers, accountants and the chair - together to learn about consumer perspective, consumer research and the consumer body of knowledge.

The workshop is tailored to the particular organisation and the particular committee, but it is not about fitting the consumer into the committee. The purpose is to bring all committee members together to learn all about consumer perspective, consumer research, and the consumer body of knowledge.

Regardless of whether members of the potential committee are consumers, carers, accountants or whoever, we expect them to come. It is imperative that they understand the basics of consumer expertise and consumer body of knowledge and all that this entails.


Workshop two (2 hours)

This interactive workshop must be tailored to the organisation and the particular committee but it will NOT be about fitting the consumer into the committee. Hopefully it will allow all participants to work towards an interactive way that people can speak respectfully to each other and also give people opportunities to feel uncomfortable and work through it, provided consumers are protected.

Opportunities to push the professionals to speak from the personal and consumers to speak from a professional narrative will be explored.

For non-consumers who miss this education session pressure may later be applied. It's very important to create a safe committee for everyone. It's also important that there is an expectation that this is important information. Consumers will rarely be able to do this promotion on their own.


In the first stage of the workshop, the aim is to metaphorically 'undress' each member of the committee. That is, everyone, including consumers, takes off their shells of armour. This doesn't mean in any way delving into people's private lives. It means, for example, "I will get rid of my identity as a 'nutcase' - just for the moment - and put it aside." Or, "I will get rid of my degree just for now." Or, "I'll get rid of my status as a CEO." Or, "I'll stop thinking of myself as a can-do person." Or, "I'll get rid of my characterisation of myself as a can't-do person."

The aim is to remove the social barriers we create to protect ourselves, understanding that this often occurs at the expense of others whose status in society is lower.

The process makes everyone potentially vulnerable, and that's the point. It's important because we need to find a point of equality. For some people, this will be their first insight into being vulnerable. This can lead to a better understanding of the powerlessness, the dignity and sometimes the sheer emotional strength of active consumers. It's fine for people to think they are helping the 'most vulnerable'. It's a very different thing to feel vulnerable.

Some people will hate this. Who likes going to a workshop that involves role play? But it is only through metaphoric nakedness that we can build the sort of committee we need: a committee t is not characterised by elitism, power, control, privilege, and a consumer tacked on to the end as a token.

In the second stage of this workshop, committee members metaphorically re-dress themselves in different clothing. People get a chance to redefine themselves in front of the rest of the committee. People also get a chance to replace a piece of their original clothing, but only if they have a strong rationale in the context of the committee. Consumers can highlight the many attributes they bring to committees that go unheard, vilified or abandoned.

Participants are encouraged to ask themselves: What does this committee need from me? What unintended consequences does my membership of this committee have for the consumer? Who are we when we take off the garlands of class, privilege, health, education, profession and so on? This is a question that often troubles people with a psychiatric diagnosis. The aim of the workshop is to enable laypeople to gain insights into the same question.

Resource 2: MBTI

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a tool designed to help people to make use of the theory of psychological types described by Carl Jung, can be useful in committee education as an aid to understanding our own temperament, and the temperament of others on the committee.

MBTI gives committee members a way of understanding each other that is not based on power, status, occupation or qualifications. Even if a committee is working well, it is useful for members to see each other as people aiming, in different ways, for similar goals. Suddenly someone we think of as disorganised and sloppy is recognised as the person who really did save the committee and keep it on track after the big fight over the distribution of discretionary funds. Suddenly the painful accountant who delves into petty details is understood to be all that the committee has to protect itself from major fiscal mistakes. The consumer too may be seen in another light completely.

More information on MBTI is easily found online. The MBTI tool itself is also available online, for a fee (see

Many other useful instruments for understanding ourselves and working better with people of different temperaments in a meeting context are available online too. They all serve as reminders that while social and political influences are at play on committees, psychological factors are at work too.