Coffee, cake and cloth: Finding meaningful engagement with carers in an NDIS trial site

Article by Dr Doris Kordes, Mental Health Carer Policy Officer, Carers Australia

This article explores a method of engaging with carers that has been trialled by Carers ACT’s Mental Health Carers Voice [1] program since January 2015. While the trial period is still in its early days, evidence suggests that monthly drop-in sessions are valuable for carers, service providers and policy makers.  

As the peak body for mental health carers living in the ACT, Carers ACT is committed to working closely with carers to ensure our policy work is informed and driven by carer needs and priorities. This involves providing timely and relevant information to carers, as well as creating opportunities for carers to provide input through social media, newsletters, and surveys, and via consultations and face-to-face discussions. The ongoing challenge is to find ways to engage with our constituency in ways that are meaningful and accessible for them. This year, the Mental Health Carers Voice program has started hosting monthly drop-in sessions to provide carers with an avenue for sharing and exchanging information about the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which commenced in the ACT on 1 July 2014. [2]

The NDIS is being phased in through an ‘ages and stages’ approach in the ACT. This year, significant numbers of people with psychosocial disability will begin transitioning into the Scheme. The advent of the NDIS in the ACT has provided additional opportunities for carers to participate in a range of public meetings and expos. In addition, the NDIS website contains a wide array of information and resources. However, many carers continue to remain anxious and uncertain about how this major social policy reform will impact on their families. Carers are still learning to make sense of eligibility criteria and the new processes for accessing and receiving services. They are worried their loved ones will ‘miss out’ or choose not to engage with the NDIS.  

The drop-in sessions were created to provide an informal space for carers to:

  • talk about the NDIS and raise questions or concerns
  • meet with service providers over afternoon tea, and learn about the range of services in the ACT
  • connect with other carers.

Drop-ins are held in a café atmosphere at Carers ACT premises, and carers are invited to ‘drop in’ at any time within a given time frame. The environment is deliberately informal and familiar. Discussions occur around a large table (with tablecloth) surrounded by vintage café décor. Catering is provided by our social enterprise Branch Out Café. Two Carers ACT staff members play ‘host’, ensuring each participant is provided with afternoon tea. 

The response has been positive. Each session has attracted between 8-13 carers representing diverse age ranges and cultural backgrounds. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers have consistently participated in each session.  

The drop-ins are encouraging a solutions focus. NDIS Consumer and Carer Advisory Group members, carer representatives appointed to the Mental Health Australia’s Capacity Building Program, regularly contribute to the drop-ins. At our last drop-in, one of these representatives guided us through a creative problem solving exercise. A report is being drafted, complete with de-identified case studies, and will be used as the brief for an upcoming NDIS-related forum.

Critical to the success of the drop-in sessions is that carers are driving them. At the end of each session, carers identify action items for Carers ACT staff to follow up on. This enables the drop-ins to evolve naturally, in accordance with carers’ interests. Most of the program and agency representatives who have dropped in have done so at the request of carers:

  • Partners in Recovery
  • Personal Helpers and Mentors
  • National Disability Insurance Agency
  • Mental Health, Justice Health and Alcohol and Drug Services, ACT Health
  • Karralika Programs Inc
  • Mental Health Community Coalition ACT.

These representatives have provided carers with information and resources. Referrals have been made. 

Finally, the evidence suggests that drop-in sessions build carers’ capacities, increases their confidence and knowledge, and strengthens their connections with other carers. They are informing policy work at Carers ACT and have also informed the NDIS Issues Register with ACT Health. They provide service providers with an opportunity to engage with carers around the table and over afternoon tea in an informal setting. They are proving to be a meaningful form of engagement for carers during an uncertain time, as we all adjust to the challenges and opportunities of the NDIS.

[1 ]The Mental Health Carers Voice program, funded by ACT Health, recruits and supports mental health carer representatives.
[2] Carers ACT also delivers monthly NDIS Carer Pathways training to all carers whose family members are likely to transition into the NDIS. For more information, visit


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