As a service user of the UK mental health system since childhood, I have always been told what to do, how to behave and to let others make my decisions and choices for me. I had little belief in myself and what I could actually achieve. I had been told that as I would never achieve anything, there was no point in even trying. So I never did.
Having only ever known the service user title for so long, knowing where I stand in society, even today, is very difficult. People with lived experience like me, who advocate for better mental health support, do what we do because of a passion to transform the systems we know. The services provided could be so much better if only they listened to us, the people actually accessing them. Although I have come far on a fascinating journey and done numerous talks about it over the years, I still feel an element of imposter syndrome. That one day, someone will tell me that I should not be where I am and that I need to go back to where I was.
Finding my voice was the first step on my road to recovery to reach where I am today, but it has not always been easy to navigate. Historically, patients with physical ailments have been accepted and acknowledged much more readily than those of us with mental health problems. Although our voices have now grown and mostly been accepted, service users can still feel they are not seen and treated as equal and not always appreciated. Non-Government organisations (NGOs) welcome customer feedback to improve the system, whereas the NHS has been slow on this. Whilst the NHS is now promoting collaboration and inclusion in the long-term mental health plan, the system seems complex, making it difficult to find your feet as a service user. For example, you worry about how you will be perceived if you are “too open” about any issues and concerns, because it might be seen as showing weakness.
‘I have learned that I have a voice and that I can use it and my past has shaped the strong person I am today.’
With the added complications of domestic violence and all forms of child abuse and neglect, it was no surprise that I ended up in the mental health system as a child. Whilst I refuse to let my past hold me back from my future, it inevitably still lives with me to this day. I can either grow with the knowledge I have learned about my past or I can stay in that place and continue to be victimised by it. Growing up, I never really saw my childhood as abuse, to me it was normal. It is only with knowledge and reflection that you can do anything about it, which is what I have tried to do. Despite all the adversities I have faced, I have learned that I have a voice and that I can use it and my past has shaped the strong person I am today. I have challenged what I’ve been through and I challenge the services that I have been a part of for most of my life. I will continue to do so, so that every service user, and/or their carers, gains the strength that I have to use their voice in their care at every level of the system. No decisions should be made without them at the heart.
I have already made a huge transition in my learning journey by believing in myself. At one point, whilst feeling incredibly frustrated with the mental health system, I handed in my notice to the organisation I had worked for and believed in since my recovery. I had lived and breathed this organisation, but it was not moving in the direction I personally felt it should have been. I have since had several new and exciting opportunities thrown my way, many of which I had been told were way above my head and not for ‘people like me’. I have accepted everything that came my way and managed every one of them successfully, even if I did not feel confident about doing them. I do not think anyone is more surprised at my achievements and accomplishments than me! The next part of my journey is to get into a position where I really can make a positive difference to mental health services. I had only ever known the service user side, so I still have lots to learn, but I will not let this deter me. I believe these past two years have given me more insights and knowledge, not only on mental health recovery and social inclusion, but on my own personal recovery journey. I have always acknowledged and thanked those that have helped me along the way, whilst never recognising and appreciating my own role and responsibility. Now I can finally accept the part I have played in this unbelievable journey and how it has only made me stronger and more determined than ever to succeed. I want recovery to not just be seen in every single service user’s care, but to be at the heart of every mental health condition, service and plan moving forward.
About the Author
Debs Teale is an advocate of creativity in health following her own remarkable journey. Having been in the mental health system for most of her life and heavily dependent on medication it took an art class to totally transform her life. She advocates creativity as an additional service to improve wellbeing and offering hope and aspiration. She has a passion to promote everyone having a voice and a choice in their own care, something she felt lacked in her own journey. Debs believes everyone has something to bring to the table, even if it is just themselves. Debs is part of our Spokesperson Network Programme.