What We Do

Working to redistribute power and resource in mental health

In 2022, NSUN produced a new Theory of Change to clarify our strategic direction, including our priorities and long term goals. This came from a desire to think critically about our place in a rapidly shifting landscape. Lived experience appears to be climbing to the top of many agendas, but user-led organisations like NSUN remain outliers.

In policy settings, lived experience is often tokenised or co-opted, othered, and not truly heard. The complexities of marginalised identities and communities are often erased. We want to continuously reflect on our role within the mental health ecosystem and think about who we are serving by attempting to formulate policy within current structures and silos.

Our work is grounded in our role as an infrastructure organisation for grassroots community groups. Many don’t explicitly describe themselves as user-led, or as being primarily mental health-focussed. Most understand mental health intersectionally. None see their work as an add-on to statutory services. Their centre of gravity is their own self-defined community and that community’s specific needs.

Traditional funding and capacity-building structures currently keep these groups precarious, excluding them from funding streams due to capacity, funding, or evidence requirements. We want to meet groups where they are at. We want to honour their mission and make the case for the often-invisible labour of grassroots groups to be valued, understood, and funded. 

Themes of NSUN’s work

  1. Knowledge: we want to build, amplify and distribute the knowledge that is held by people with lived experience of mental ill-health, distress and trauma
  1. Collaboration: we want to create collaborative spaces with members and partners through coalitions and networks to build momentum and sustainability for the work. We hope to build nurturing conditions within mental health work that prioritise care
  1. Voice: we want to build an alternative approach to mental health policy work, challenging traditional silos, unjust hierarchies of evidence, and harmful demands for data and visibility. This comes at a time where the external environment is one of hostile and unjust structures, systems and legislation
  1. Resourcing: we want to work with funders, and act as a microfunder to redistribute resources to grassroots user-led groups and establish better practice

Long term hopes

By working on these themes as our priorities, we hope to contribute towards the following long term goals:

  • For the plurality of lived experiences to be centred in the mental health space and acknowledged as legitimate knowledge
  • For collective power to be built, sustained and exercised by grassroots groups
  • For re-imagined mental health policy structures
  • For the redistribution of power and resource in mental health

What we don’t do

A seat at the policy table comes at a cost. Too often, we are asked to be “the voice” of all survivors and service users in decision-making settings, when there is no such thing as one survivor and service user voice. 

We recognise that our participation in certain processes or initiatives can often inadvertently validate or legitimise harmful work. We can end up not being heard, ticking someone else’s inclusion box, and perpetuating the status quo. 

We created a decision-making matrix to help us decide which work we should be taking on, clarifying what we can change and what we need to focus on. This work is still emerging, and these questions will change. We recognise that we have a lot to learn as we seek to put this into practice and we won’t always get it right. Some of the questions we are asking ourselves when considering taking on new pieces of work include:

  • Is the work ethical?
  • Is there scope to meaningfully influence as part of this work or effect change for our members?
  • Where the work involves sharing or collecting people’s experiences with significant emotional or other investment, is the likelihood of people’s lived experience being heard proportionate?
  • Is another organisation better placed to do this work?

Guiding ethos

We want our work moving forwards to be underpinned by a set of guiding principles, including:

  • Centering lived experience in its plurality and acknowledging lived experience as a legitimate form of knowledge
  • Prioritising self-determination in mental health care 
  • Committing to transformative justice and structural changes that transform the material conditions of people’s lives
  • Open ways of working together: being rooted in collaboration; encouraging generosity, care and uncertainty in our ways of working

Summary

As a user-led organisation, we bring to the mental health sector a focus on lived experience and a commitment to social justice. We sit in a unique place, between the grassroots and the mainstream, and at the intersection of health, disability, and human rights. We have a renewed focus on racial and migrant justice.

At our core, we are a network of community groups and people who have experience of mental distress, ill-health, or trauma. With our refreshed strategic direction, we hope to model different ways of working, reject harmful traditional policy structures, resist external pressures, and ground ourselves firmly in working with members towards the redistribution of power and resources in mental health and beyond.

We are not one voice: we are a network of many. While we as an organisation may campaign or take a stand on policy issues, informed by what we hear from our membership, we do not have – nor do we seek – the authority to speak on behalf of anyone. Our aim is to strengthen, amplify, and build connections with and between grassroots groups and people with lived experience so that they can create meaningful change for their and our communities.

Read more – written pieces by staff

Become a member

Our members are individuals with lived experience of mental ill-health, distress, or trauma, as well as user-led community groups. Membership is free, and you will receive the weekly membership bulletin. You can also join the network as a supporter.