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Peer researchers report on mental health services for Healthwatch

A recent study supported by Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead into how our people in our region who are experiencing homelessness experience local mental health services has highlighted some key concerns, prompting Healthwatch Newcastle to release a report on the issues.

Peer researchers from our Experts by Experience network talked directly to people experiencing homelessness and those in insecure accommodation, gaining vital insights into some common problems. Healthwatch has now released the report, which includes some important recommendations to improve mental health services for this vulnerable group of people.

To facilitate the study, Healthwatch Newcastle asked Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead (FLNG) to carry out the work on their behalf.

Methods of research

One of our core methods of research is using a team of peer researchers – trained ‘Experts by Experience’ to talk to people. This is because many people find it easier to open up to someone who has some experience of the issues they encounter, rather than a professional who may be perceived as unable to relate to as easily.

From October to December 2018, FLNG’s Experts by Experience worked across three Changing Lives projects – Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead, Multiple Exclusion Team and Social Impact Bond; Entrenched Homelessness Newcastle and Gateshead.

They reached out to people who were experiencing homelessness or living in insecure accommodation. These peer researchers asked a number of identified questions in focus groups and one to one interviews. They also used creative data capture methods. These included asking participants to summarise in three words their ideal mental health service expectations. FLNG Experts by Experience developed a scrapbook for participants to record their experiences. They also produced a graphic novella featuring five short stories inspired by audio recordings made by participants. The team of peer researchers found a high level of despair and desperation evident in those they met during the study.

Steph Edusei, CEO of Healthwatch Newcastle said:

“The key findings with regard to access to mental health services were worrying. Many participants felt that their situation needed to escalate in order for them to get access to appropriate help. One participant said, “I was told if you have problems, ask for help. When I have asked for help I have been refused. I asked for help in the wrong way and I knew if I acted violently, they take you to hospital and you get the help. That was the only way I knew I could get help.”

Mental health treatments

Experiences of mental health treatments were similarly negative for the majority of participants. Researchers asked participants about their experiences with therapies and medication and were told that both came up short. Four participants commented that their experience of talking therapy didn’t meet their expectations. Similarly, many participants spoke about group therapy as being infrequent and difficult to deal with.

Sheila Blatchford, an Expert by Experience said: “Peer research is a very important tool for gaining knowledge as sometimes people do not feel comfortable talking to professionals or they will give answers that they expect the professionals are looking for. We gathered data and insights that we hope will give a voice to people with lived experience of homelessness or insecure accommodation.”

Experiences with medication

Participants experiences with medication varied. Some described self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, whilst others were frustrated by no longer being able to access medications previously prescribed for them. Some, however, had been on a journey to get the right medication and dose and reflected on this positively.

FLNG’s report highlights that 67% of their active clients have a diagnosed mental health issue. Many participants found the stigma associated with mental health and, in particular, with their drug, alcohol and offending histories to be a barrier when accessing services.

Recommendations for improvement

Although the report is not an easy emotional read, the positive to come from this project is the subsequent list of recommendations for improvement.

These include:

  • Allowing people to co-produce their own mental health treatment plans
  • Improved access to support and treatment in a timely way
  • Mental health services to work with housing, drug and alcohol services to create support that ‘wraps around’ mental health treatment
  • Improved crisis support
  • Better support for people with multiple and complex needs
  • Access to someone who has the time and remit to talk

“This study and report highlight some worrying issues. However, Healthwatch Newcastle feel the work has been an important part of improving mental health services in the city, particularly for vulnerable groups. Sadly, homelessness and mental health issues have an association but there are positive ways we can improve the lives of those affected,” said Ms Edeusi.

Download the Healthwatch report

Download the Experts by Experience report:- Views and experiences of local mental health services for people with experience of homelessness or insecure housing