People with personal mental health experiences are more qualified to work with patients, not less

Lucy Nichol
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People with personal mental health experiences are more qualified to work with patients, not less

It bewilders me that, in 2019, people are still being discriminated against in the workplace because of their mental health problems. I’ve interviewed many people who have, sadly, had to endure such challenging experiences.

But shouldn’t we flip it on its head? What if we thought of lived experience as a good thing?

After all, if the MD of a surfwear company had years of surfing experience, as well as professional management experience, we’d see it as a good thing. Quiksilver certainly doesn’t hide the fact that its founders, Alan Green and John Law, like to go surfing.

So why is it different with lived experience of mental health in mental health services?

I’m sure there are loads of brilliant examples where this idea is wholly embraced. But just as with all employers in all sectors, there are examples of times where lived experience is seen as a bad thing.

I’ve had people working in mental health services tell me that they were warned by managers not to share their diagnosis. Another told me that when a colleague found out she was a member of an online Borderline Personality Disorder support group, she was laughed at and asked if she needed a bed in the psychiatric hospital she was working in.

Somebody else was told by a psychiatrist that she could never work in CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) because of her mental health diagnosis.

Luckily, this stigma doesn’t lie with everyone. The woman who was told she could never work in CAMHS is now a senior CAMHS nurse.

Recently, I interviewed Lionel Joyce, a former NHS trust chief executive who lives with bipolar disorder and is in recovery from alcoholism. Back in 1973, when he applied for his first job in the health sector, he lied on his application form.

He’d just been discharged from a psychiatric unit having attempted to take his own life. He didn’t think for a minute he’d get an interview, never mind the job as administrative assistant within the NHS, if he was honest about where he’d spent the last few months.

That’s a plausible concern. Admitting you have a mental health problem in the workplace can still cause problems in 2019, as many people have told me. But how much has it changed since 1973?

Luckily, when Lionel finally did open up to his boss, he was well supported, and he continued to work professionally in a role where he could use his lived experience to benefit the sector he worked in. He worked his way up the ranks and eventually found himself standing outside St Nicholas mental health hospital in Newcastle ready to take the helm as an NHS CEO.

He was able to look at the facilities, care and policies he inherited with the eyes of someone who had experienced such services as a patient at crisis point. As someone who had to wear pyjamas because his clothes had been taken away; as someone who wasn’t able to choose what he wanted to eat; as someone who was forced to socialise with strangers; and as someone who would often feel bored out of his mind.

This was a perspective that Lionel felt was important he bring to the job – and to the top table. He wanted clinicians and patients to relate as human beings, not as merely “professional” and “person with diagnosis”.

As chief executive, Lionel wasn’t a clinician, but he was able to facilitate change that put patients first. He empowered teams to bring new ideas to him for how to redesign patient facilities that allowed patients to have more dignity – and because this was so important to him, he revised budgets to ensure that patients were at the heart of how spend was allocated.

This is why it’s not just about considering the value of clinicians with lived experience, but also the people at the top – the ones making decisions on spend, service design and policy. It’s about creating frameworks in which clinicians can operate more effectively. Just as we need a whole person approach, we need a whole organisation approach.

Lionel said something to me that was really refreshing. He said that employers can choose how they deal with employees’ mental health experiences and the impact that this may have on work.

Employers can either see lived experiences as liabilities, or as an employee’s greatest asset. And if they adopt the latter approach, the employee, as well as the whole organisation, will feel the benefits.

To hear Lucy Nichol’s full interview with Lionel Joyce, click here