Meet Cathy Oddie, Family Violence Lived Experience Consultant in our Mental Health team at Monash Health.

Cathy says she is filled with gratitude for the opportunity to bring her personal and professional experiences together in a role that will help shape our response to family violence.

“It’s quite ground-breaking of Monash Health to employ someone with lived experience; to see that it has its own merits.”

“It shows that this is not tokenism or tick a box. They respect people’s time and effort to come in and share their experience to help make things better for others.”

“It’s an amazing thing to feel invited in not as ‘less than’ but treated as an equal. It’s a deeply emotional thing to be shown you have value.”

“I think that’s courageous and pioneering and I hope other health services pay attention,” Cathy says.

Cathy has been a family violence survivor advocate for over 10 years and has lived experience of two long term abusive relationships and all recognised forms of family violence – “It had a devastating impact in all ways, especially on my health and wellbeing.”

“But going through all of that and surviving as I have, has led me here. Prior to the abuse I never had anxiety, depression or PTSD. Like many who have experienced family violence, there are health factors I now live with and manage.”

“But I’m well aware that even in this place I am in a space of white privilege – I’m employed, I come from a good family, I understand how systems and organisations work and still I have found it so hard to navigate. If someone like me has these issues, imagine if I had factors such as a mental illness, drug and alcohol issues, or didn’t speak English,” Cathy says.

How does it feel when you watch/hear others tell their family violence stories?

It is really important that we don’t ever become desensitised. Even for someone like me with lived experienced of family violence, I can have an emotional response and be shocked and that is important. Behind the stats are real, human lives and we need to remember that.

It would be fair to say that it is constantly challenging to put yourself out there and make public your most private stories, but I have learnt from the experience of the Royal Commission into Family Violence – and other experiences along the way – that to make a significant difference for others affected by family violence, it’s important to be identified.

Why do you describe this as your ‘dream job’?

If someone had told me as a high school student that I would have ended up in this role I would have been horrified, because of the life experiences that would mean I would have to go through. But now I’ve gone through these challenges it becomes so apparent to me the importance of a role like this and I am filled with gratitude that Monash Health has created a role like this.

In 2007 after enduring six years of violence, I was very angry and frustrated about how I had been continually failed by systems and services. I started in the Safe Steps survivor advocate pilot program and it allowed me to channel all that emotion in a productive way.

What are you hoping to achieve?

Change the narrative, change the system; I’m deeply passionate about breaking down the silos of the family violence and health systems.

Health services need to have a united cohesive response to family violence. There needs to be collaboration across disciplines and whilst some things in different practice areas are done differently, there will be better outcomes for those affected by family violence – and perpetrators – if there is better sharing of information and everyone takes the same, consistent approach.

What role can health professionals play in helping people who have experienced family violence?

Based on my experience, it can be easy to treat the health issue that’s presenting because we’re scared to ask the harder questions.

I presented at a local GP with burns and broken bones explicitly disclosing what had caused the injury… they treated the injury. They didn’t ask. There was no acknowledgement of what I’d said. There was no help or referral. They didn’t check whether I had outside support or help. Often it is assumed that people know what to do and have chosen not to.

Sometimes I was sent back into the situation that caused or triggered my illness or injury! People are not supported to know the referral pathways.

Don’t assume knowledge. In a health service we have a responsibility to take a few more moments – don’t be afraid to ask the question because you never know how much you could change someone’s life. The other thing to know is that your response to disclosure is so important. Not acknowledging a disclosure just reinforces the isolation that person is feeling.

How do you react to being asked the question ‘Why didn’t you leave?’

I think it really focuses on you being the one with weaknesses. What I like to focus on is strength; what gave you the strength or courage to leave.

The reasons people experiencing family violence choose to remain in abusive relationships are complex and varied. It is important that health professionals are aware that on average it can take a person experiencing abuse several attempts to safely leave a violent relationship and that they are at a much greater level of risk during this time. We need to shine a light on the behaviour of the perpetrators.

What other experience do you bring to the role at Monash?

In my previous role I was seeing the devastating effects of financial abuse – 90 per cent of people affected by family violence suffer severe financial impacts.

I have worked in the financial sector for the last four years. I was with HESTA as a business development and policy coordinator. One of the things I did there was put forward the idea of family violence being one of the compassionate grounds for the early release of super. This policy change is currently part of a series of recommendations being made to the Federal Government’s review on this issue.

I also had seven years at Centrelink, so my experience of family violence is not just my lived experience but also professionally assisting others.

I’ve also worked for North Fitzroy Prevention and Recovery Care and Uniting Care.