This RITB blog is the first in a series of blogs about the lived experiences of being a Mental Health Peer Worker. If you are a peer worker (or work in a similar role) and want to share your lived experience, please submit a blog for consideration: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lived Experience Working in the NHS
In theory, life should be good at the moment. I’ve finished my Masters. I’ve got a wonderful hubby. But the other day, I realised that I was taking home pretty much the same pay as I did when I left school to be a carer for my Mum at 16, and was doing a part time cleaning job. The difference is that now I am 41, with a first class BA Hons, a couple of post graduate certificates, loads of experience working in several different disciplines and now a Masters of Science Degree. I took the pay cut, a few bands down to my other work, roughly six years ago, with the idea that I could easily work my way up within an organisation that employs 4000 staff. It struck my like a ton of bricks that in six years I haven’t moved, and despite my experience and specialist training, I have very little worth or value within the system I work in. Rather than wallow in it, I decided it was the kick in the bum I needed to do something about it.
Sadly, it appears that there are no current or future plans to employ people like me – people who use lived experience of mental health conditions within their work – within specialised roles beyond the lower paid ones. Even those of us who are more qualified, specialised or experience than our colleagues. We will continue to be managed and led by people whose job roles do not incorporate Lived Experience. Even if they are less qualified than we are.
I sobbed deep sobs as I realised that no matter how hard I tried, how much better I am, or how much I achieve, I am worth less than colleagues who are either not open about or do not suffer from mental health conditions. I am worth less than my colleagues because I actively use my insight into this within my work. I am worth less despite training for five years and taking a pay cut to do so.
We talk about challenging stigma of mental health. We first have to do this within the mental health services who claim to support us. If I am worth less than my colleagues because of my mental health disability, how can my colleagues treat the service users they treat as equal human beings, deserving of dignity, respect and equality? Our gay colleagues and our black colleagues, our physically disabled colleagues are visibly able to hold positions that match the hard work, the qualifications and the merit they have have. We want equality for the many NHS staff working in mental health services who are not facing a glass ceiling – they are facing a concrete ceiling – within the work they do. Let us manage and develop Service User Involvement, Service User Consultancy, Service User research. It is our discipline, one we have been developing since the 60’s, and now there are many of us who are qualified, skilled and experienced in these areas.
Stop telling us we are not worth anything, that we are worth less, whilst you promote and employ staff to manage and govern us.
This is one story, but it is the experience of many of us, actively held back and discriminated against because of our mental health disability, and our audacity to bring the insight it gives us into a space that feels shame. We don’t want to retrain as clinicians within other disciplines, we are training in our own, and it is valid, and brings a visibility to mental health that all the other disciplines erase. It is the missing link in our services.
Please, please start treating us as your equals. Because we are your equals. The barriers and discrimination you place before us mean that we will never stand anywhere near you, even if we’ve had to work twenty times harder to stand ten steps behind you.
We are worth just as much as you are. Maybe if you let us in, the very act of seeing us as equal will improve the care that is given to all people with mental health disabilities when we access services.