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ThinkPlace is co-designing mental health services with users

Co-designing mental health services with system users

The number of people who identify as having severe and complex mental illness has dramatically increased over recent decades in Australia, with experts pointing to shortcomings in how the health system is set up to deal with this sometimes-overwhelming challenge.

Within this context there is a clear need for new ways of supporting people in this position. And some of that need falls upon Primary Health Networks (PHNs), not for profit organisations that are tasked by the Government to buy the right mix of health services for their local region. 

Data shows that mental health issues are increasing across the region, particularly among younger residents ... The rates of deaths from suicide are also concerning. Stakeholders told us there is a need for increased access to integrated and holistic services that better target a range of mental health needs. - Brisbane North PHN



Brisbane North PHN undertook a review of its services to better support people with severe and complex mental illness. The project involved a rapid, eight-week review of the current service mix to make sure it was right for the community and to help identify where changes in services might be needed. 

The review was an important part of the network’s preparation for new funding measures for mental health.

The network’s leaders wanted to try a new approach that involved co-design. The idea that services will be better targeted and more successful if designed with significant input and involvement from the intended users is core to human-centred service design. But there has sometimes been a reticence to “do co-design” with groups, such as people living with complex mental health issues, who can be difficult to engage meaningfully and respectfully.



This ability to enable co-design with cohorts often deemed ‘challenging’ is a critical part of the ThinkPlace design capability – represented by our core service: Inclusive co-design and engagement.

ThinkPlace was engaged to support the Brisbane North PHN team to use co-design techniques to methodically and genuinely involve the people directly impacted by severe and complex mental illness in contributing to the review. 

To achieve this, the ThinkPlace team drew on the experience of the PHN, capitalizing on the network’s deep experience and extensive community connections. The ThinkPlace team worked to grow the PHN team’s co-design capability and provide supplementary support as needed.


workshop artefact from PHN project



ThinkPlace supported Brisbane North PHN through a coaching model, spending a number of days with the network’s team. 

Our designers spent a day coaching the team in co-design techniques, models, templates and approaches. This was followed by structured opportunities for the PHN team to practise these techniques in the field. 

The ThinkPlace team followed this practical experience by facilitating a day of reflection exploring individual’s experiences, takeaways and approaches that could be employed in the following stages of the review.

The keys areas of support provided were:

  1. Helping build the roadmap and project plan for the project and designing how the pieces of work could be conducted using co-design, community and stakeholder engagements methods
  2. Building the PHN team’s capacity to deliver the work by building capability of team members through structured and customised training on appropriate co-design methods
  3. Shadowing or being shadowed ‘in the field’ as the PHN team conducted the program of work, helping with preparation, running activities and analysis of the inputs gained from engagements; and
  4. Communicating the insights gained to the broader the PHN and stakeholders, particularly in terms of representing complex and in-depth qualitative insights in simple and easy to understand formats



The PHN was able to pull together their response and submission to support the new National Psychosocial Support (NPS) Measure. The ThinkPlace team helped build the co-design capability of the Brisbane North PHN team, exploring techniques and methods to genuinely engage people directly impacted by severe and complex mental illness leading to better outcomes for all stakeholders. 

This process involved partnering with the PHN team to deliver the review. The project was coupled with formal training to empower staff to play a leading role in the delivery of the project. The team sensitively worked with people experiencing and caring for people with severe and complex mental illness to inform future changes to service provision.

PHN staff, service providers and people and carers experiencing severe and complex mental illness felt empowered throughout the process - not just learning or participating in the co-design approach but seeing how their efforts were translates into ideas that could be shared with stakeholders to inform system changes. 

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Brisbane North Primary Health Network
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