Introducing Mary O’Hagan

Mary O’Hagan is a brilliant woman I’ve been fortunate to hear speak on several occasions now. She has had an incredible personal journey from her experiences of ‘madness’ as a young woman in a psych ward, through her to role as the New Zealand Mental Health Commissioner. Her insight into the Recovery Model and commitment to better services is inspiring. She’s also behind the fantastic Peer Zone project. You can learn more about her work here:

I wanted to share about her now because her book Madness Made Me: A Memoir has recently won an award! It placed Silver in the 2015 Independent Publisher Regional and Ebook Awards!

Mary O'Hagan

On this blog, I’m extremely careful to be aware of that intersection between my stories and other people’s stories. I own my own stories but I have to be very mindful of when telling mine starts to tell other peoples. So while this blog is all about me – my thoughts, my poems, my experiences – because that is what I know and own to share, it can create an odd kind of impression that I exist in isolation, without reference to others and their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have learned so much from so many other people in my life. It delights me when someone like Mary has her work recognised publicly like this, not only because that’s always a wonderful thing to celebrate, but because it gives me a public platform to share about them.

I first met Mary at a conference in Melbourne many years ago. She stood in front of the room and spoke openly about “being mad” with such honesty and simple acceptance I was deeply moved. She was the inspiration behind me standing up in front of rooms of people and making jokes that I might have multiple personalities, but don’t worry! Not a single one of them is an axe murderer! And the room would laugh with that relief that I could be so bold and comfortable, and that slight nervousness you often get when you use humour in mental health that means “are we allowed to laugh about that? Are you sure?” I borrowed that frankness from Mary.

Later on I was lucky to get into talks she gave locally. Local services have been very generous at times to broke peer workers. Her Recovery Approach to Risk workshop in particular was memorable. Workshopping creative and compassionate solutions for people caught between their own complex needs and the madness and limitations of the services here to support them, I could see another way of working in mental health. She put a lot of my thoughts and feelings into words, and that’s always a cherished experience. I know I do the same at times for some people and how appreciated that is.

Mary has been generous with her time. I’m often isolated and struggling to get projects off the ground here in SA. In fact I’m pretty certain my international reputation at conferences and such is very much informed by my tendency to cry at the back of the room in talks, partly because I’m so lonely and broke and struggling to bring my values into the mental health sector here, and partly because it’s so overwhelmingly moving to hear from so many other people – almost all more networked, older, wiser, more experienced, perhaps at times too a little more battered, world weary and disillusioned. The recent ISPS conference in Melbourne? Cried then too. Sat at the back, listening to a German psychiatrist discuss the critical importance of peer experience in their roll out of Open Dialogue, and the way they drew upon Systems Theory to inform their adaptation of the model and I l wept, because I’ve only recently heard of systems theory in art class and it immediately seemed totally relevant for mental health to me but it sounds crazy when I say that because I’m just a mad artist – and here was this psychiatrist saying that and showing how the team he was part of had implemented it…

And suddenly I’m not alone. I’m not the Greek prophet doomed to know the future but not be believed. I’m part of something great. An international community of people who are incredibly skilled, incredibly diverse, all reaching towards humanity, seeking to understand, alleviate suffering, bring hope. Even my most original ideas have probably been thought of by someone else and are being hard fought for to develop. I’m not alone, I’m not the only one, and I don’t bear the sole weight of responsibility for that hope.

To hear these voices confidently share what I’ve thought or felt privately, to be able to talk to others who take as given assumptions I have to fight so hard for everywhere else (like the value of peer work), it’s a precious thing. And to have them give me a voice, respect my thoughts and experience too – well in mental health, that’s almost impossible for me usually.

Mary has made time for me, shared lunch with me, let me bounce my grand mad ideas off her. She’s played a small part, I don’t mean to suggest that we’re best mates, but she’s an important member of my community. I’ve learned a lot from her and been blessed by her acceptance of my knowledge and the value of what I’m trying to do too.

This is my tribe too – all these people moved by pain. Sharing deep truths of their own experience, or fighting for better quality research, or struggling to translate values into policies, or volunteering on a Monday to sit with frightened and lonely people in hospitals. I am part of a great whole, valuable but not, thankfully, essential. My knowledge is built on the back of a great history of those who have come before me, their legacy of successes and failures, their deeply personal experiences, their hopes and imperfections and own moments of being moved to tears. People like Mary are generous with their knowledge and their passion and experience, and because of that it lives on in me and in the next generation beyond me.

So, go read her book. Get to know her. Attend a talk if you get the chance. Learn from her, argue with her, honour the gift that honest telling of personal stories in public settings always is. Honour the value of it and the cost of it. She’s brilliant, go learn something.

2 thoughts on “Introducing Mary O’Hagan

  1. This is so positive and inspiring!!! I love that there is someone out there who is genuinely trying to help with experience of being in the system. Go you, go Mary, and go anyone else who is actually trying to make things better!!! Xx


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