It is with profound sadness that we acknowledge the passing on 30th July 2023 of our dearest friend and colleague, Debra Sobott. Debra (Deb) had retired from public systemic advocacy activities in the last few years to address serious health challenges which contributed to her sudden passing. Our hearts are with Deb’s family who were the centre of her world and who are understandably bereft at her passing.
It was Deb’s love of family that led her to become involved with Mental Health Matters 2 in 2010 and to guide its development as a Steering Group member for many years. Despite the stigma and discrimination around the issues, Deb frequently spoke publicly, eloquently, and incisively of her own family’s experience and the experiences of individuals and family members with co-occurring mental ill-health and alcohol and other drug use who had been abandoned or let down by systems and services and who subsequently became involved in the criminal justice system. The painful experiences and the profound injustices and inequities that Deb’s loved one and others with similar experiences faced, drove Deb to work conscientiously and relentlessly to highlight gaping human rights chasms and to advocate for urgent change.
Deb was a spokesperson and leader in key MHM2’s systemic advocacy activities including, but not limited to, the establishment of the Start Court in 2013; the development and implementation of the Mental Health Act 2014 (particularly around smoking for people in involuntary detention) and the long-term campaign for the review of the Criminal Law (Mentally Impaired Accused) Act 1996. Her tireless work to elevate families and their knowledge and experiences resulted in her being awarded the 2013 Family/Carer Involvement and Engagement Good Outcomes Mental Health Award.
In 2012, Deb was appointed as the WA Carer representative on the National Mental Health Consumer and Carer Forum (NMHCCF), a role which she held until 2017. During those years, well before Zoom and Teams meetings were the norm, she balanced the demands of national travel and NMHCCF duties with her ongoing and often urgent caregiving commitments.
Deb always focussed her advocacy ‘at the pointy end’ where human rights were at risk of or were being denied. This included ongoing advocacy for diversion from and better treatment of people with mental health conditions in prison as well as the elimination of seclusion and restraint practices in mental health services.
It was not in Deb’s nature to do things by half. She did not merely ‘shine a light’; she became an unwavering lighthouse on key issues. One issue close to her heart was the detrimental impacts of neuroleptic (anti-psychotic) medications. She fiercely advocated for more transparent and contemporary information and research in this area as she continued to witness the impacts of the long-term use of these drugs on the physical health of people diagnosed with mental health conditions, particularly psychosis. With research colleagues, Dr Robyn Martin, Dr Kate Dorozenko and Lyn Mahboub from Curtin University, Deb co-led the research leading to the publication of the 2017, NMHCCF-commissioned report ‘A Critical Literature Review of the Direct, Adverse Effects of Neuroleptics’ and an accompanying, accessible guide for individuals and families. These documents stand as a salient testimony to the fearless quality of Deb’s advocacy and her unflinching stance in holding ‘truth to power’. Deb knew and experienced Power’s pushback to truth-telling, and she frequently experienced the discomfiting, marginalising, and exclusionary responses. This did not deter Deb; in fact, it fuelled her resolve.
It was bemusing as a friend and peer colleague to often witness Deb’s elegant and polite presentation being misunderstood and under-estimated as well-intentioned, maternal, do-gooding. It was often too late for the politician, system leader or service decision-maker to defend the indefensible or retreat from a shaky position by the time they realised that Deb’s glamorous exterior was the Trojan Horse concealing a relentless and extensively equipped, human rights Warrior (with a capital W).
Deb forensically prepared for her frighteningly provocative and laser-focussed advocacy whether it was to a Parliamentary Committee or to a local service. This approach was fuelled by her deeply felt responsibility to give her best to all activities on behalf of others who were affected but not in the room. This often involved working late into the night to edit reports or read the latest literature and then wake early in the morning ready for another full day. Deb’s conference presentations were impeccably prepared and researched while maintaining an unflinching lived experience lens. When Deb represented MHM2 as a panellist at the 2018 Australian College for Emergency Medicine forum, we knew the task was in expert hands. For those who wish to be reminded of Deb-in-action, here’s a clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoSeWIBNoH8&t=154s&ab_channel=Croakey
Despite her incredible productivity, Deb’s family and friends were always the centre of her life. Her TripAdvisor-level knowledge of local cafes and places to meet was renowned as was her penchant for cream and cake. She’d bring a tray of freshly made egg sandwiches to MHM2 events to which people reacted like Rottnest seagulls on salty chips. Knowing that the same sarnies were my favourite, she’d set a few aside for when I’d finished talking with invited guests. Those small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness were among Deb’s classic hallmarks.
Deb was the rare friend who would bring her presence and compassion to crisis-filled Emergency Departments or onto courtroom benches because she knew the anguish and isolation of those places. She would compassionately just be with you, then help to plot the next steps of advocacy or action and walk alongside you for as long as was needed. During that time, she would carefully choose her moments to share a snarky commentary using the exclusive brand of ‘peer humour’ which can lighten intense scenarios. Her kindness was expansive, and her generosity was remarkable.
There is no doubt that Deb touched people’s lives in irrevocable ways. Supported by her family, she alchemised the challenges of their and others’ experiences into rich, meaningful contributions to help make the world a better place for those who are too often overlooked. By doing so, she left the world a better place for her having been here.
We love you and we will miss you dearly. Vale our friend, Deb.
Margaret and the MHM2 community