The NHS Confederation has taken inspiration from the service user movement and hired two former clients last month to act as consultants to its mental health services. Corin Williams reports
Mental health service users can find it more difficult to put their views to professionals and policymakers than clients who use other services. Older and disabled people’s groups have been able to develop strong user forums on a national and local level, but mental health service groups have lagged behind.
To boost involvement, two service user consultants were appointed last month to the NHS Confederation Mental Health Network (MHN), which was launched last year following the absorption of the National Mental Health Partnership.
Anne Beales and Kate Holmes will offer a service user perspective on the work of the MHN, which covers more than 70% of mental health trusts. They have both used mental health services before successfully running their own user involvement organisations. They have high hopes that they will be able to improve frontline services and national policy.
Beales is on the management committee of the National Survivor User Network, which brings together service user-run groups and survivors of mental health services. She is also the director of service user involvement at Together: Working for Wellbeing, a national mental health charity. She was also involved in the MHN’s predecessor as a service user lead, and this has given her a good understanding of her new role.
“I’m not a representative. I can’t represent somebody who uses services in Birmingham, but I might have an idea of what they think,” she says. “I’m able to access the views of people who use mental health services locally, regionally, and have a collective idea of different perspectives on many issues, on NHS policy and so on. That means I can help those views have an impact nationally.”
Her philosophy is that user involvement can garner a sense of solidarity among vulnerable people. “My belief is that with the right support we move through experiences and don’t get stuck,” she says. “People are people, not their diagnosis.”
Beales also understands that improving services means lobbying at every level, from government ministers to service regulators and workforce trainers. “In every arena that has an impact on our lives on a daily basis, I would hope that this role would be influential,” she says.
Beales started her career at a local service user group in West Sussex before working her way up to become director of Together – a “tortuous route” as she calls it. “That took 12 years. I’ve become much better at listening and putting other people’s perspective forward.”
Her vision is to see an infrastructure of service user involvement reaching down to local communities across the country and up to a national level. “We’re on the starting blocks,” she says. “On a personal level, I’m hoping to show that if I can hold down a job, wear a suit, earn some money, be proud of who I am and not feel ashamed of my experiences, anyone can do it.”
Holmes was appointed thanks to her experience as a service user tutor at Middlesex University and as the director of Enfield Mental Health Users Group. However, it took her a while to become involved in the user movement after first becoming ill in the 1980s. “I didn’t want anything to do with other service users, I wanted to go back to what I deemed a normal life,” she says. “But when I had problems again in the 1990s, I decided to leave my job at a university and work in the mental health field. There I thought ‘I am a service user’, why not admit that and make a contribution to improving services?”
Like Beales, Holmes is aware that she has been lucky to be able to hold down a job while coping with her mental illness and avoid the trap that many people experience of being over-reliant on benefits. She says: “I am keen to push any anti-stigma campaign that might be launched, because until employers are more willing to take on people with mental health problems we’re never going to get out of this ghetto.”
Further down the line, then, what does she hope to achieve as the new MHN service user consultant? “Within the next couple of years I want to see mental health established on the political agenda, a higher priority for the government following the next election.”
- NHS Confederation MHN
- National Survivor User Network
- Together: Working for Wellbeing
- Enfield Mental Health Users Group
This article was published in the 27 November edition of Community Care under the headline A Meeting of Minds