The Greater Manchester Independent Mental Health Network (IMHN) provides a vital bridge between those going through the mental health system and the organisations which provide the services.
The city-region is home to one of two IMHN branches in the country and is currently in the process of expanding its work.
Manchester World spoke to the charity about the importance of getting the voices of those battling mental health conditions heard and how a service user’s view can help improve NHS services in the city-region for everyone.
‘We are the link between service providers and users’
Greater Manchester is home to the second IMHN branch to be set up, following on from the original work in the Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset area.
Established by CEO Tom Renhard with Rob Hemingway and El Afzal working on setting up the organisation in Greater Manchester, the IMHN ensures that people who have been through the mental health system (who it calls “experts by experience”) are able to sit on official boards and attend partnership meetings.
This means that the city-region’s NHS bosses get to hear exactly how people being treated feel the system is working and listen to their recommendations for improvements.
Engagement and co-production manager Savannah Middleton said: “We’re a user-led organisation whose main goal is the representation of lived experience and co-production.
“It’s about working collaboratively to make sure service users have an input into what the service looks like in the future.
“The services that have been rolled out over the last few years have been fantastic but there’s always room for improvement.
“The feedback from people who have actually gone through the process is incredibly valuable.
“It’s about seeing it from both sides, providers and service users, and linking them together. We are the link.”
Areas where service users have been able to suggest improvements
The IMHN has brought its “experts by experience” to meetings of the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, the Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and other similar steering groups and policy boards.
Since the Greater Manchester branch was set up around a year and a half ago, the charity has also been able to make it clear where service users feel the offerings are falling short.
Savannah said: “One issue is the ‘ping-pong ball effect’ where people go through the process of speaking to a GP and then getting referred back and forth until someone wants to help you. That can be really frustrating.
“Waiting times can also be an issue. If someone goes to their GP and then have to wait six or seven months to be seen by a counsellor that can increase the likelihood of them going into crisis.
“Also, while services for depression and anxiety which are more common are quite easily accessible some more specific services like dialect based therapy for personality disorders are not always accessible in all boroughs.
“It can be a bit of a postcode lottery but because you live in the wrong borough or neighbourhood shouldn’t mean you can’t get access to life-saving treatment.
“As a service provider you don’t always go through these experiences yourself, so it’s about ensuring the voices of those who do are heard.
“We relay good experiences as well as slightly negative ones and it’s about learning from what went wrong to help ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Responsiveness to hearing about personal experiences
Savannah says the health bodies in Greater Manchester should be praised for their willingness to take on board what the IMHN representatives are saying.
She said: “Service providers really do care about patients and want to make positive change.
“They are ready to listen and make improvements and that is refreshing.
“I don’t think there’s a single service provider in Greater Manchester that doesn’t have that mindset. They are aware of the issues and are trying to find solutions.
“What we don’t want is a situation where our reps are invited to a meeting, sit there and feel they don’t have a voice and don’t say anything.
“That’s just tokenism and we work to prevent that at all costs.”
Working with grassroots groups and projects across Greater Manchester
As well as ensuring service users are heard at planning meetings the IMHN runs or is involved in a number of projects across the city-region.
It has a focus on peer support and is currently in the process of working out exactly what services of this type are available in each of the 10 boroughs and finding out where the provision gaps are.
It has also set up a grant pot for small and innovative organisations working in this area.
Savannah says it is important that the IMHN goes into communities with needs it can tackle, rather than treading on work already being done.
It also has three mental health forums, one in Wigan and Leigh, one for the Tameside and Glossop area and one in Stockport.
Done in collaboration with the Anthony Seddon Centre, these bring together service users, GPs, health professionals, grassroots organisations and anyone else who wants to join to discuss mental health-related issues in the local area.
These then feed back into the Lived Experience Leadership Forum, which has two representatives from each borough and looks at what is happening in each part of Greater Manchester.
The IMHN is also working on maternal mental health, providing lived experience reps for the Living Well project in Heywood, Middleton and Rochdale and engaging with the Big Wellbeing Conversation initiative currently happening in Bolton.
The charity is also working on a leadership training programme for its representatives.