A former service user is using his experiences of receiving specialist mental health care to help shape future services. The work has changed his life – and he’s now encouraging others to get involved.
Tony Watkins, from Norwich, volunteers as an expert by experience – someone who has recent personal experience (within the last eight years) of using or caring for someone who uses health, mental health and/or social care services - with Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust’s Participation Team.
He decided to work with the Trust after spending 15 years caring for his wife, who had bipolar disorder and sadly passed away in 2012. Tony has also experienced his own difficulties with mental health after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, for which he has received care.
Tony has spent the last year working with staff and services to ensure the voice and experiences of patients is always considered. This has included speaking about his own experiences with teams and clinicians, running groups to help people who have experience of the trust’s services share ideas for improvement, checking patient information to make sure it can be easily understood, and being involved in recruiting staff.
The father-of-three credits his participation role with helping him to stay well and better manage his own wellbeing.
Tony said: “I thoroughly enjoy working with the Participation Team.
“It gives me the opportunity to help change the way things are done and drive improvements for lots of other people in different ways. That is really important to me as I want to give back and help others who are facing similar issues.
“I find it really worthwhile – I definitely think I’ve found my calling. It’s amazing to be involved in changing things for the better and this has really helped my mental health by giving me things to focus on.”
Tony is now encouraging others to use their own experiences to help improve services for the future.
He said: “Participation helps to break down boundaries and forms that bridge between clinicians and service users. It also helps NSFT to see things from both sides. I believe that learning from a book and learning through experience are both equally important for making services better.
“I’ve learnt from everybody I’ve interacted with – it’s been great to have met so many lovely people and it has really helped with my own situation. I’ve now learnt to recognise my triggers and know how to change things to get back on an even keel when I don’t feel quite right.
“I now hope we can encourage even more people to feel they can join in and help make a difference. It feels tough to begin with but is so worth it – and once you’ve done it the first time, you just want to go back and do more.”
Laura Cox, who was a People Participation Coordinator with NSFT but is now a Nursing Associate in the Community Mental Health Team, said: “We’re committed to working with our service users to help shape and improve how we deliver care. We are so grateful to Tony and all our volunteers for so generously giving us their time, knowledge and experience.
“We offer lots of different opportunities for people to get involved at NSFT, from taking part in groups to discuss ideas for improvements to volunteering with services and joining interview panels. We recognise everyone is unique and will be at different stages of their treatment and recovery so we make sure we provide opportunities that are right for our service users. It’s entirely up to them how much they want to be involved and which projects they want to work on.”
For more information about participation at NSFT, visit www.nsft.nhs.uk/participation.