What We Do

NSUN is a network of grassroots, community mental health groups and people who have lived experience of mental distress, ill-health or trauma.

NSUN connects, supports, and amplifies the voices and work of the 6,000+ individuals and user-led groups that make up our membership. As a user-led organisation ourselves, all of our staff and trustees have lived experience, and our work is rooted in our key value of solidarity.

We work to redistribute power and resource in mental health. This page sets out what we do and how we work. You may also be interested in reading about our history and the language we use, and our charitable aims, mission, vision, and values.

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, and the ‘lived experience leadership’ field is growing, but user-led organisations like NSUN remain outliers.

In policy, research, and service 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, where demands for data and visibility can be harmful.

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. They often do not see their experiences of mental distress and trauma as separate to other and multiple forms of marginalisation and oppression. 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. They face many challenges and their needs are rarely met.

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

We work to redistribute power and resource in mental health. We do this through our work in four areas:

  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 so that their work is sustained and valued

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

Guiding ethos

We want our work to be underpinned by a set of core principles, including:

  • Centering lived experience in its plurality, acknowledging and prioritising lived experience as a site of knowledge
  • Working with a critical understanding of mental ill-health, distress, trauma, and madness, prioritising self-determination in mental health care
  • Committing to transformative justice and structural and political changes that transform the material conditions of people’s lives
  • Having open ways of working together: being rooted in collaboration, encouraging generosity, care and uncertainty in our ways of working

Our guiding principles mean that we acknowledge that our work must be intersectional, and that we centre care, choice, dignity, social justice, and freedom from oppression, marginalisation, and state harm in our work and in what we advocate for in and around the mental health sector.

What we don’t do

There are many things we are not – for example, a service provider – but the following relates specifically to work in the policy and influencing space.

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. 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?

We don’t take a traditional approach to policy work, instead using critical, political and rights-based approaches. We centre social justice, anti-oppression, and the social and material determinants of distress and trauma, focussing on issues such as state violence and harm. Click here to read more about our policy and campaigning work.

Summary

As a user-led organisation, we bring to the mental health sector an authentic 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, with 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.

Explore our work

To find out what all of this looks like in practice, you might want to read our latest news or have a look at some of the projects we work on, including our grant programmes for user-led groups, read about our policy and campaigns work or catch up on our policy briefings and articles, explore the lived experience-led research we have published, or read our some of our member blogs.

You can also read the following staff blogs:
‘How we make decisions’
‘Resourcing user-led work’
‘Policy at NSUN: Where do we stand, where might we go?’