Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health and a Synergi Advisory Board member, explains why her organisation launched a Commission for Equality in Mental Health and reveals her frustration at a succession of governments' inability to 'hear' the evidence of people with lived experience.

Synergi Collaborative Centre Stroke

Why the Commission for Equality in Mental Health?

When I joined the Centre for Mental Health it was a very exciting time. I found myself talking to some of the most powerful people in the country about mental health and visits to Number 10 and the Department of Health felt very important. They still do.

There was one thing that grated: the lack of a wide discussion about equality. There are some individuals who have centred their lives on helping the government, and the public, develop a sophisticated and nuanced narrative about equality.

It is my view that those individuals should not be expected to carry the messages alone. We all have a responsibility to address the seemingly impenetrable differences in the way some communities are marginalised.

The evidence is clear – people who experience material, social and health inequalities fare less well in life, and in the case of mental illness we know that people are at risk of dying 20 years earlier than those who don’t experience mental illness. Most people agree that this is an appalling reflection in 2018.

I was brought up to care about my fellow woman as my family was primarily concerned with sharing resources and love among those who were outcast and set apart somehow. We were a house full of ‘others’. In response, I am sensitive to injustice.

I am hypervigilant when it comes to the indisputable gulf between people who have money and those who don’t, the 120,000 children who are homeless, the 75 per cent of children who live in local authority care who meet the criteria for mental health support, the disproportionate numbers of people from BAME communities in psychiatric hospital, the 70-90 per cent of people in prison with mental illness. I could go on, but these are just some of the inequalities I am concerned by.

It seems clear to me that by addressing inequality we address the most disturbing facts about people’s lives. Yet, what is often astonishing is that despite the evidence, the government often asks the same question – why? The irony is, we know why.

We have told governments of all hues why. We have told the public why. Against this backdrop, the focus for me becomes, why can’t the evidence be heard? Why are the voices of people with lived experience not being heard? And why in the simplest terms do we continue to turn a blind eye? I think some of us know the answers to these questions. They are not comfortable, but they need to be faced.

Personally, and professionally, I have found solace among those that share my hypervigilance. I listen to the experiences of others and throw my weight behind ideas and solutions. I am a person with direct experience and someone who identifies as an ally.

When I was invited to join the Synergi Advisory Board I was at first honoured and then inspired. We share values and a determination to ensure that we challenge the status quo by collectively refusing to accept that the experience of ethnic minorities in mental health services are part of our landscape. Taking a creative approach to giving different spaces and time for people to share stories – after all it is stories that ultimately get beneath the skin – is based on a belief that individual narratives gathered together can create a roar.

It is with that belief in collective power that the Centre for Mental Health created the Commission for Equality in Mental Health. The role of the commission will be to harness the knowledge of our partners, accept the political implications and create a head of steam around the issues we care about. I dislike the term marginalised groups. I feel it disenfranchises people and somehow creates a distance. What I am talking about is equality, which is about recognising there are some communities who as a result of racism, poverty and stigma are at risk of being marginalised by privilege.

We ask you to be part of the Synergi Network, and the commission, on the condition that you are prepared to face the issues head on. The door is open.

Picture credit: Ross Findon