In January 2020, Akiko Hart will join NSUN as CEO. Sarah Yiannoullou will be leaving after an amazing 10 years of growing NSUN’s network and working to put our members manifesto into action. Below, Akiko introduces herself and shares her hopes for the future of NSUN.
I’m incredibly excited and honoured to be taking on this new role.
There are many challenges ahead. User-led groups have been decimated over the last decade. This has had a direct impact on individuals being able to access support which is useful to them- and also on the ability of user-led groups and networks to bid for tenders or access funding. Punitive welfare policies have become entrenched, threatening the dignity and survival of those most in need of support. Cuts have meant that too many cannot access services when they need them- and yet those who do can still encounter neglect and abuse at the sharper end of the mental health system. And throughout, confusingly, there has been an increasing focus on service user engagement and co-production in mental health research, policy and practice. The independence of user-led groups and respect for their perspectives and activities has been eroded. The reality is that over the past 10 years, too many people have been left behind, and change is not happening quickly enough.
But there is also hope. There is an enormous survivor, service user and lived experience body of knowledge out there which demands to be heard- and a deep and important history which needs to be preserved. There are countless individuals and user-led groups campaigning and creating change on the ground. Part of NSUN’s role is to support and raise awareness of these initiatives, build the network, and help create more spaces and opportunities where they can flourish. Together we’re stronger: we need to help people find each other and the groups and organisations near them that can make a difference. NSUN needs to tell this story and show where the experiences of our members are different to those of other people.
I am not a service user. Like many people, I have personal, ongoing experience of mental health difficulties- in my case, depression, and intrusive thoughts. But I’m aware that this is not the same as having personal experience of detention or coercion, trying to access secondary mental health services, or navigating the benefits system. Nor do I have direct personal experience of the Criminal Justice System, the care system, or the racism that other racialised minorities might experience. Our personal experiences inform our views and work, but none of us can -or should- seek to represent all experiences.
For me, part of my role at NSUN will be to amplify as many voices and perspectives as possible. I’d like to focus in particular on those which tend to be more marginalised, excluded or disempowered- whether it’s the experiences of forensic mental health service users, trans people trying to access support, people with Learning Disabilities who are held in ATUs, or people from racialised communities living with the everyday struggle of overcoming institutionally racist policies and institutions. Sometimes people bemoan the fact that survivors, service users, or people with lived experience do not speak with one voice. I think the opposite: it is this diversity which is NSUN’s strength.
Large mental health charities now dominate the mental health landscape, both in terms of service provision and ‘speaking for’ people who use mental health services or experience mental health difficulties or distress. This needs to change. My aim is to position NSUN at the heart of mental health policy, centre and amplify the voices of people with personal experience, and fight for the rights-based changes we need to see happen in mental health.
Akiko Hart will be starting at NSUN in January 2020. She currently works as the Hearing Voices Project Manager at Mind in Camden, where she helps set up and facilitate Hearing Voices peer support groups and networks in a variety of settings, including the community, in-patient units, children and adolescent mental health services, prisons, secure units and Immigration Removal Centers.
She is also the Chair of ISPS UK and a Committee Member of the English Hearing Voices Network. As part of her work for the English Hearing Voices Network, she co-wrote the Alternative Mental Health Act Review. She has previously worked as the Director of Mental Health Europe