Anne Beales Together In this guest blog, Anne Beales, director of the Service User Involvement Directorate at Together for Mental Wellbeing, talks about the development of the service user voice in the past decade.

My goal, since starting at Together for Mental Wellbeing, has always been to improve support for people experiencing mental distress. I believe that the best way to achieve this is to genuinely involve people that use services in the way they are designed and delivered. We are experts in our own experience, and by using our knowledge the quality of services can be improved so that they are able to bring about positive changes within people’s lives. 

Looking back over the past 10 years, I’m really proud of what we, as a Service User Involvement Directorate within a national mental health charity, have achieved with regard to involving service users in every part of our organisation. I’m also encouraged by the steps taken in the sector more widely; most recently with the recommendation in the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health that experts by experience should be at the heart of commissioning and service design.

The time has now come for me to retire from Together, so I thought this would be an opportune moment to reflect on how far service user involvement has come during the past decade. 

My passion has always been heavily rooted in my personal experience of mental health issues. From the day I experienced a breakdown, all I wanted to do was just get back on with my life. I was able to access the support I needed, but I know others often aren’t so lucky. So through my work I have been committed to ensuring that others have access to useful services and peer support. 

I’m leaving Together in a position where it is now an established leader in this area. We listen to the day-to-day reality of people’s lives and struggles and transform this into a strategic direction for the organisation. I want to share a few examples that really highlight this to me.  

We’ve ensured that we have service user representation on our board of trustees, corporate management team and broader management group. We endeavour to achieve this in every area of the organisation, including human resources, finance and education and training. Alongside this and with our national steering group we have the people we support leading the way, not just in their own support but in decisions at every level about the direction, design and delivery of our services.

More specifically, Together involves people who use services from the outset so informing strategic developments, working hand-in-hand to ensure service user leadership is at the forefront of our organisation. 

For example, when Together won a contract to run floating community support across Norfolk, we knew we needed to make service user involvement  and leadership integral to the service from the outset. We held information sessions for staff and service users, inviting all involved to talk openly about the change process and future of the service. These sessions were led by people with lived experience and a key aim was to understand the specific needs and wishes of those that would be using the service. In addition, people with lived experience were on the recruitment panels for interviews with new and transferring staff, and a peer support coordinator was recruited to lead the process of making peer support integral to the new service.

Beyond this, we’ve championed the service user leadership movement more widely. In 2005, alongside the Mental Health Foundation, we delivered a brief to set up a national service user network with the aim of enabling people with experience of mental health issues to have a stronger voice in shaping policy and services. In 2007, we secured funding and the National Survivor User Network (NSUN) was born. This year, NSUN is celebrating 10 years of connecting people with experience of mental health issues and giving us a stronger voice. 

Internationally, we hosted an international exchange for Interrelate, a network that connects people from across the world that share a wealth of expertise in mental health from a service user/consumer perspective. By bringing people together we can learn from and inspire one another speaking as a ‘collective’ and find creative solutions to issues within the system. We’ve also helped other organisations to implement service user leadership through providing briefings and advising on best practice. 

We’ve also supported the development of peer support from the ground up and 26 of Together’s services now offer peer support.

Over time, I’ve seen the notion of service user leadership gain a strong currency within Together and my confidence has grown. We’ve collectively shaped what is available to people that use our services, and beyond. These examples just touch the surface of how we’ve made meaningful service user leadership part and parcel of what we provide.

I’m really proud of what the Service User Involvement Directorate at Together has achieved. There were times when my personal mental health issues made it a challenge, but achieving true service user involvement always remained my goal and this enabled me to push through even when I was plagued by self-doubt. In doing so, I can honestly say that my wellbeing has stayed the best it has ever been in all of my life. 

I hope that by sharing some insight into my journey, and acknowledging that it hasn’t been easy, I can inspire others to believe in their dreams and pursue them. I’m excited about my future as I am now the chair of Disability Rights UK and a non-executive director of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

Going forward I hope that momentum towards achieving service user involvement will be maintained at a national level, and that the 4PI principles will be applied in practice. In doing so, I hope that we will eventually have a system determined by the people that use it.

But I remain truly confident that the work of the Service User Involvement Directorate within Together will continue to grow, develop and add value to the organisation, and I hope that this will be mirrored in the mental health sector more widely.