‘We’ve been too quiet’

As new head of mental health charity Together Liz Felton knows her organisation has lost out when it comes to grabbing a slice of the publicity pie.

“Rethink has done a tremendous job in terms of its profile in the sector,” Felton says of the organisation where until recently she was deputy chief executive. “Together has been a little quieter.”

Together faces competition on the national stage from the likes of Rethink, Mind, Sane, the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health and the Mental Health Foundation.

“Our world is quite crowded at the moment,” says Felton. “Whether that’s because there are too many of us or our world isn’t quite big enough – it could be a bit of both.” She says the charities have some elements in common but have many distinctive features.

In a crowded field, a business analyst might suggest that an organisation needs a strong “unique selling point” to differentiate itself from the competition.

Together’s uniqueness, she says, is its focus on wider well-being (the charity’s full title is Together: Working For Wellbeing) and its agenda of service user leadership. “We are concerned with people, not with conditions or illnesses or problems, in a very whole life sense. A lot of people we talk to as service users want to do more than just shaping mental health services.”

Together provides services for 3,500 service users in 100 projects across England and runs a service user involvement directorate to give people with experience of the system a stronger say within and outside of the organisation.

That focus on service users, their recovery and general well-being will be the foundation on which Together builds its profile, argues Felton.

But Together also has several concerns that it shares with other charities working in the field. Declining resources, caused by the financial crisis in the NHS, have put all providers under pressure from local commissioners to deliver their services for less money. “The belief that we are able to recover our costs from our contracts is a notion, not a reality. We are winning contracts from each other often with very low margins, which adds to the pressure we are under.”

Despite recent financial difficulties, Felton says many people have seen an improvement in their experience of mental health services since the current government came to power. But there has been little change in service users’ experience of stigma and discrimination, which is more important to many people than the service they receive, she argues.

Like many in the sector she believes the government’s anti-­stigma programme, Shift, is too small and agencies such as Together could have been involved more in the campaign, particularly in terms of involving service users. “We are here and we are ready and we are waiting and saying ‘bring us into this, we’ve got something to offer’.”

Felton argues providers themselves can do more to tackle ­stigma. “We can do our job properly for a start and help people get better and promote hope.” If people see recovery happening then the public’s attitude towards mental health will change, she says.

Felton started her mental health career as a community psychiatric nurse in 1979. Much has changed since, particularly the increasing importance of the recovery model, but she hopes that “in 30 years’ time people won’t be held back in their lives just because they’ve had a mental health problem”.

Felton on Felton

Favourite film:
James Bond films – I like explosions!

Have you been watching Celebrity Big Brother?”
Oh please no, no way.

Favourite holiday destination:
A Caribbean island with white sand. Tobago, that’s the one.

Contact the author
Simeon Brody


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