NSUN network for mental health is an independent, service-user-led charity that connects people with experience of mental health issues to give us a stronger voice in shaping policy and services.

Total Giving


Join the community

World Mental Health Day - A day of contradictions!

World mental health day is here and our work is getting harder

It’s World Mental Health Day and Sarah Yiannoullou is struggling with some of its contradictions for people with long term mental health needs.

World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is 25 years old this year. The World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) explains that this year’s theme of Mental Health in the Workplace ‘builds on the recent World Bank’s identification of mental health as a Global Development Priority which recognizes the critical impact mental health has on economic development and well-being’. The World Federation of Mental Health (WFMH) is seeking to encourage mental health aware workplaces through its global pledge.

As media campaigns have become bigger, as Royal support has attracted wider interest and funding for special initiatives, as conversations have become more open for the general public, we have to ask what has changed for people who have what is termed as ‘severe and enduring mental health problems’, who don’t neatly fit with the mental health services ‘recovery agenda’ and find it almost impossible to secure or stay in work?

I’m struggling with the contradictions.  Over the years I’ve been involved in all sorts of activities and events to mark the occasion. It has provided many people and organisations with the opportunity to promote mental health in a variety of ways from small local gatherings, public events and pieces in the media, however it has always felt quite localised within the mental health community. This year feels different, it’s a big occasion and mental health really has had coverage and profile like no other time. There’s no doubt that there will be interesting and important radio, press and TV coverage, but, and this is a big BUT… we need to look behind the red velvet curtains.

This year we’ve seen high profile Royal support through theHeads Together campaign and a £2millon award from theRoyal Foundation for a digital start-up company to direct people to mental health services online, and other tools promoting conversation between those struggling with their mental wellbeing. Mental health has also had increased government attention with announcements regarding funding, pledges to boost the NHS mental health workforce in England by 21,000 by 2021, the publication of the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health and the recent announcement to review the Mental Health Act. 

Despite this it’s increasingly difficult to ‘warmly welcome’ announcements that just don’t seem to be addressing some of the deeper problems we’re seeing at what has been termed the ‘sharp-end’ of services. 

Work is about the right work. Bad jobs and benefits pressure help no one.  There is great tension between the WFMH Presidents’ statement in the WMHD 2017 report that ‘Employment is critical in promoting recovery – for individuals, communities, and nations’ and theMental Health at Work 2017 report, a survey of 3,000 workers for the charity Business in the Community that found 60% of people questioned had experienced mental health issues because of work.

A lot has changed in the world of mental health but a lot, in terms of challenges, still remain. We are not a single issue community and so many factors are contributing to the worsening of situations and thus the worsening of our individual wellbeing – in and out of work.

It’s no surprise that collectives of people who have experience of distress and service use are now leaning towards a World Mental Health Day ‘NON-EVENT’ due to their experiences of mental health support and services not improving at all or actually getting a lot worse Although the WMHD 2017 report.pdf offers commentary on some of the most important aspects of a ‘mental health-friendly workplace, it uses the now common language and statistics of the ‘burden’ of mental health - the costs of mental health problems. If we are to promote meaningful employment for people who experience mental health problems, should we not be talking the language of rights not economic cost? Human rights provide us with a universal language that is less able to be misinterpreted or misrepresented, as we’ve seen with the likes of co-production, recovery and peer support. It’s not just about getting people into work it’s about changing what work looks like.

NSUN is a network of organisations, groups and individuals that have been building our own mental health world and making work happen that is led and delivered by people with direct experience of mental health difficulty.  Sometimes this turns into paid work and sometimes it doesn’t.  What is important is that our members are building workplaces of their own, with mental health wired into them from the beginning. These small user led groups not only provide invaluable support but also employment for many people who may not be able to find a supportive work environment.

We believe user-led organisations are vital for setting the agenda and showing what a world for people with mental health difficulties should look like.  Personal, political and social change is needed to make any part of our society work for people with mental health difficulties.  Our Members’ Manifesto, set by our members and vital as a guide to our actions, sets out the issues that are essential in realising the vision of this year’s World Mental Health Day and all those to come.

  • Address the injustice and harm that have been caused by cuts to public funding and changes to the benefits system
  • Make the policy of ‘getting the right support, at the right time, in the right place, from the right person’ a reality
  • Pressure mental health services to make the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ a reality at all levels, through meaningful involvement in decisions about our own individual care and genuine co-production to develop services
  • Work together with people from socially deprived and marginalised communities to determine their support and develop alternatives 
  • Challenge institutionalised discrimination and put equality back on the agenda for mainstream mental health services    
  • Call for a reform of the Mental Health Act 2007 to make it fully compliant with human rights legislation and ensure that people are not harmed or abused
  • Reflect the social model of disability and promote informed choice and alternatives to medication in better person-centred support
  • Reclaim, challenge and revive survivor knowledge and research

Sadly in 2016-17 over 150 of our member groups closed.

Our own and other evidence suggests that the diversity of the voluntary sector is under threat, and within that the most vulnerable are the user-led, black and minority ethnic and smaller groups.  NSUN and many other user-led groups around the country have been employing people for decades, on full and part time contracts; as self-employed training and research consultants; as involvement advisors receiving ‘permitted involvement payments, making up a significant percentage of the workforce for people identified as having ‘mental health problems’. People have created for themselves a flexible and supportive environment that understands fluctuating levels of wellness and the contributing factors of distress when it can’t be found or accessed elsewhere.

Funding and support for these groups continues to diminish. Competitive commissioning and tendering processes marginalises smaller groups and favours larger corporates. Government grants for the Voluntary Sector have disappeared or changed, becoming less accessible to the smaller specialist and  user-led groups. Our experience of working with some of the statutory agencies has also seen a back step when valuing the contributions of people with experience of distress (service user consultants/advisors). Involvement practice is not being ethically or equally supported. Payments policies are minimising the ‘Reward and Recognition’ people receive compared with other ‘non service user’ consultants.

Welfare reforms are making it harder than ever for service user involvement, with people being put at risk of sanctions and losing their benefits. Also those who are freelance advisors, trainers and researchers are experiencing reduced earnings as they are increasingly expected to work for less or for free.

NSUN’s World Mental Health Day pledge is to advocate on behalf of our members and continue to have collective and respectful regard for each other.  We will also continue to help our members understand the policy landscape and what’s coming up, to take a stand on important issues and provide opinion pieces, to continue to strengthen links between members and to continue to lobby for equality of access and opportunity. We will also campaign for a rights based Mental Health Act. Our network will promote and campaign for safety, security and respect for all in and outside of the workplace.

Mental health is our workplace and we want to get that right, too.  Beyond the 'numbers driven' world of workplace wellbeing initiatives there is pain and sadness, but also hope.  Some people may never work again unless the meaning of work is changed.  Others work day in, day out for things to be better but never get the payment or recognition they deserve.  Those of us who can and do work, especially in mental health, have a duty to make things better for those who could but don't have the opportunities or who can’t and need our support.