- 09 March 2018
- Posted in: Health & Social Care
What does it mean to be a mental health service user in 2018?
I can give you some idea - I’ve spent 11 years as a service user for treatment-resistant depression, going from GP visits to psychiatric assessments, psychology appointments, Crisis Team sessions and outpatient therapy, meaning I’ve seen all aspects of the service. However, I also manage my condition by volunteering with a peer support walking group, Mental Health Mates, set up by Bryony Gordon in 2016. Together, we galvanise walk leaders who provide a non-judgemental setting for local people to talk. Each walk leader has lived experience of a mental health condition.
Most Mental Health Mates members have used primary care services, and often secondary care services, in the last few years, for anything from eating disorders to bipolar and OCD. The scariest thing about talking to other people with mental health issues isn’t the point when you open up and share a difficult story – it’s when you realise your story isn’t unique at all, and there are so many others with similar experiences, highlighting the gap between mental and physical healthcare, and the ever-increasing waiting times. That’s why I’m so glad the Improving Mental Health Outcomes conference puts service users alongside health professionals; the only way we can create lasting and impactful change is to listen to the people who use these services at their most vulnerable.
Until we start tackling mental health issues in their early stages, long before patients spiral into crisis situations, we will continue to see services stretched; eating disorder sufferers casually told their weight isn’t low enough for hospital readmittance; people re-mortgaging their homes to pay for in-patient treatment; medics burning out under pressure. Change is afoot, but it isn’t happening fast enough, which is why we need conferences such as this.
Of course, there are success stories – people who have great keyworkers, psychiatrists and counsellors on hand, and people whose medication has made a real difference to their wellbeing. However, many of these results come from reluctantly ‘going private’ in a crisis, which puts financial pressure on patients and their families, as I know from personal experience. Until we create a level playing field with reasonable waiting times for effective and free treatment, we risk alienating the patients who can’t afford to queue-jump.
There’s also a toll on the caregivers themselves: a hidden army of people caring for the 1 in 4 of us with mental health problems. At Mental Health Mates, we often receive emails from worried relatives; whilst we can’t give advice on treatment, we see it’s just as important for family, friends and carers to be heard, and to meet like-minded people. But how great would it be if carers could influence policy decision-makers, too?
And let’s not forget the workforce: we must consider how to attract a new generation of mental health staff and make them feel valued, not disposable. This is difficult at a time when some staff members report prejudice when dealing with their own mental health conditions at work. Everyone should be protected from mental health discrimination in the workplace, but it seems particularly illogical to place barriers in front of those in caring professions, when empathy should be one of our most valuable tools.
Peer support is just one part of the mental health treatment puzzle, but we hope groups like ours can provide third sector help at a time when healthcare budgets are particularly squeezed and services need to be overhauled. Everyone at Mental Health Mates will be excited to hear about the service strategies discussed at the Improving Mental Health Outcomes conference, whether that means improving treatment plans for inpatients, bringing care closer to home, or shortening waiting times for assessments.
Polly Allen is a member of the panel discussion "Rethinking commissioning, funding and outcomes", taking place at 12:20pm during the conference. She is a journalist and blogger, and part of the marketing and communications team at Mental Health Mates (mentalhealthmates.co.uk).