Let’s talk about mental health

In last month’s Essex Chronicle column, I wrote about how important it is for commissioners and service providers to engage with people and talk to them about what they need, what they want, and how they can best design their services to meet those ends. I spoke about our recently launched e-learning course on ‘lived experience’, designed to help professionals to do just that.

There are many ways in which Healthwatch Essex engages with patients and uses this information to help influence decision making within the health and social care arena. But seeing as last week hosted World Mental Health Day, I feel it is appropriate to highlight one such initiative where ‘lived experience’ is having an impact in shaping mental health services in Essex.

Last year, Healthwatch Essex recruited 16 Mental Health Ambassadors, all with direct experience of mental health services, either as a service user themselves, or as a carer/family member. They were tasked with working alongside the commissioners from the Clinical Commissioning Groups and Councils to co-produce the new Essex-wide Mental Health and Well-being Strategy. The strategy was launched at an event in July where stakeholders were invited to hear directly from these Ambassadors about how they have contributed to the strategy, what they think is important and how, by working together, we can change things for the better.

In the year ahead, these Ambassadors will be involved in the implementation of the strategy and will act as the commissioners and service providers’ conscience – making sure they deliver what they have promised!

World Mental Health Day is a great opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and talk about what’s being done and what we need to do.  But we must remember that the issues faced by service users are an ongoing and daily challenge. By facilitating the joint working of patients, carers and commissioners to shape strategy and services, we are heading in the right direction, but there is still work to be done, particularly where professionals need to involve and support carers and families in the care planning process.

Our Mental Health Ambassadors are certainly beginning to make a difference.  But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s an extract from a blog by one of our Ambassadors about her experiences and what World Mental Health Day means to her.

“I have been a Healthwatch Essex Mental Health Ambassador for a year now and I can honestly say, hand-on-heart that things are going in the right direction. People are taking notice of me, and those like me – people that live with this every day. I’m lucky enough that I’ve been able to use my experiences to impact change in how the services are run and how people view mental health. The new strategy launched this year is only the start, and although things are never going to happen overnight, it’s better we take those steps in the right direction every night than never take them at all.

I suppose what World Mental Health Day is to me, is a reminder. It reminds me to keep fighting for those who fight every day to get out of bed. It reminds me to fight for those that are taking their first anxious steps towards saying that they need help. It reminds me to fight for those that don’t know where to go or who to turn to. Mental health issues won’t go away and can’t be bandaged like a broken toe. The bandages we have are our family, friends and colleagues. But they only work when we can be looked at without judgemental stares and whispers behind our backs. We shouldn’t ever be labelled as “not good enough”. When we’re in a bad place we tell ourselves those words far more than you ever could. We need those around us to be there, offer a hand and remind us to keep fighting when we feel like we can’t anymore.”

Dr David Sollis, Chief Executive at Healthwatch Essex