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When it comes to eclectic CVs Debora Colvin’s certainly stands out. Today she is the Chief Mental Health Advocate of Western Australia. But her early career entailed her climbing rope ladders up the sides of miscreant ships in her role as a maritime lawyer.

When it comes to eclectic CVs Debora Colvin’s certainly stands out. Today she is the Chief Mental Health Advocate of Western Australia. But her early career entailed her climbing rope ladders up the sides of miscreant ships in her role as a maritime lawyer.
When asked how one led to the other, Debora laughs. “The better question might be: how did I end up as a maritime lawyer, because I never set out to do that either!”

The answer has something to do with her guidance from early mentor Oscar Shub, then a partner at Parker and Parker. When she was still a restricted practitioner, Oscar took her out to arrest her first ship, which was anchored in Gage Roads off the coast of Perth. The experience of physically affixing the writ to the bridge of the ship was “easier said than done,” she recalls. “You need lots of different types of sticky tape.”

Nonetheless, something clicked for Debora and although originally she had her “eyes set on doing something more socially oriented” she “fell into maritime law and just loved it”. And for the next decade, that was her speciality – first at Freehill Hollingdale and Page (Legacy) and later at Pynt and Partners.
But that socially oriented impulse never quite went away and in fact has been a constant throughout her life. When considering university she was torn between law, social work and journalism, and initially pursued the latter as a career, taking a cadetship at West Australian newspapers. 

Later on, married to a lawyer, living in Sydney and “a bit bored with journalism to be honest”, she took a part-time law course at the University of Technology Sydney. “I was hooked from the time that I started studying law; I loved it,” she recalls. 
Litigation was her passion and she says she was lucky to work on many fascinating cases. “I love the process of gathering evidence and breaking it down bit by bit in a very logical way. It’s that methodical nature, it really suits my brain.”

Speaking up for those who can’t

What her litigation experience also did was genuinely hone the skills she needed for her current role. Debora’s move into advocacy came in 2015, when family issues led to her taking a three-month sabbatical from Pynt and Partners. One of those issues was her father being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her mother struggling to cope. She soon realised three months wasn’t enough and, while intending to return at some future date, she resigned from her position.

While looking after her parents, however, she also took a “very nice, flexible, part-time job” as an Official Visitor. These were roles first created back in the 1800s – mental health advocates with the power to enter asylums, assess people and release them if they deemed it appropriate. Debora may have taken the job merely to give herself something to do, but within a year she’d been asked to head the Council. And when the Mental Health Act was rewritten in 2014 – with a staggering 587 sections – the Council of Official Visitors became the Mental Health Advocacy Service and the following year Debora was appointed as the inaugural Chief Mental Health Advocate. 

Worst case scenarios

Her role is now overseeing a team of senior advocates and 40 mental health advocates,  who visit a range of mental health service facilities, including secure wards, psychiatric hospitals and emergency departments, to ensure that people there are aware of their rights and properly supported in accordance with the provisions of the Mental Health Act. 

Day to day she’s meeting with chief executives of the health service, briefing the State Minister for Health or sitting on a range of committees. While it’s her team who are on the ground and at the coalface, the very worst cases will come to her. “Then I have to take them and try to do something with them,” she says. “I can’t emphasise enough how disempowering it is to be put on a locked mental health ward, but to have somebody say, ‘I’m here for you, I’m on your side and it’s my job to make sure your voice is heard’ can be such a calming influence on a person. That’s the real power.”

It’s challenging work and her legal skills are invaluable. “The starting point is very rights-focused,” she explains, “and procedural fairness is just ingrained in you – particularly as a litigation lawyer. That’s something that I call on almost every day.
“Also a lot of being an advocate is about gathering information and understanding all perspectives. You need to do this in order to be able to be persuasive in your arguments.”

Added to this is the necessity of focusing on accuracy, she says, and not falling into common traps. “It constantly surprises me that people will make assumptions all the time and one of the things I learned as a lawyer is not to do that. That’s very helpful in this job too. “And, obviously, you have to be a wordsmith, which of course most lawyers are.”

One foot in front of the other

Working in an environment where you are witnessing such a high degree of trauma and stress, it’s imperative to be able to switch off and consider your own well-being. Debora is in her own words a “mad keen cyclist”, but above all loves to walk. She’s already completed England’s famous coast to coast walk and, closer to home, the Bibbulmun Track. “Walking in the wilderness brings you back to the basics in life – putting one foot in front of the other. Am I cold? When am I going to eat next? What am I eating?”  

With her batteries recharged it’s back to the frontline fighting for increased funding, better planning and more services. “We badly need more money to create what I would call a more humane alternative to keeping people on locked mental health wards. In Western Australia 25 percent of people in there shouldn’t be.

“They’re there for months and months, even years, because there is no suitable alternative supported accommodation in the community. It means they don’t progress, they become institutionalised, cut off from society.”
With such formidable obstacles what is the most rewarding aspect of her role? “It’s knowing you’ve influenced a change, which will positively impact on someone’s life,” she says. “I say that, knowing that change never happens by one person’s efforts alone. It is always a joint effort.”