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Democratising mental health like Stelios

On Friday I had the nicest start to the weekend – a conversation with Beth Ditzel, the communications officer from Leonard Cheshire Disability. Mental Snapp has been shortlisted for an award from the Stelios Foundation, their annual Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs. The award is administered by Leonard Cheshire, and Beth was arranging press support for all the shortlisted enterprises. There are some great people on the short list and I’m looking forward to meeting them all at the award ceremony on the 14th November.

But first I had to answer Beth’s questions so she could put together the press release. The most important question I felt was why we had applied to the Stelios Foundation and for this award. Mental health sits interestingly alongside the disability movement, and in some ways lags behind it massively.

Last year’s winner of the awards, the Freedom One Life, illustrates this. Its founder, Alex Papanikolaou, is a wheelchair user who came up with a fantastic design for a long life battery go anywhere wheelchair. Among the disability community and in wider society, people are starting to recognise that users are the real experts and to value them for their insights and the potential innovations that these can represent. Alex’s invention is a brilliant example of best practice in the disability movement. However, mental health is still largely seen as the preserve of experts and we tend to defer to psychiatrists and psychologists, rather than listening to the voice of the user. I’m not saying that these professionals don’t have their place, but at the same time, the model need democratisation. If users – if people like me – are to live independent lives, we and the rest of society needs to recognise that we are the experts in ourselves. Valuing people for the skills and expertise they have in managing their own mental health is the lesson the mental health community needs to learn from the disability movement, which has long driven home the message that it is what people can do, not what they can’t, that needs to be the focus of attention. Let’s make this a system wide attitude, as it empowers, and normalises.

At the same time, mental health had another aspect to its relationship with the disability movement, and I’d love to learn from the disabled community the most progressive attitude to take to this part of the argument. Mental health is something that everyone has, a mass movement. There are users, sure, but in Mental Snapp we don’t refer to service users, or people with a diagnosis, we talk about ‘people actively managing their mental health’. This is because we want to learn from the ability first attitude of the disability movement, and also because we don’t want to see people orientating their lives or their identity around their service use or their diagnosis. This is where Sir Stelios comes in.

The great thing about EasyJet and the Easy brand in general is the democratisation of travel. Stelios is a man of the people and he has a fantastic understanding of what it takes to create a mass movement. I asked my son, who hasn’t travelled abroad very much, if he’d heard of Sir Stelios and EasyJet. “Of course” he said “that’s what we flew on to Spain”. It turns out that all my son’s air travel has been by EasyJet, and that he is aware of the brand at aged seven. In fact, if it hadn’t been for EasyJet prices, we wouldn’t have been to Spain. When EasyJet first came to market, air travel was the preserve of the elite. Now we are in an age of mass travel and the bar to entry is lowered. Holidays abroad are accessible where they used to be exclusive.

I hope this means that Sir Stelios will understand what we’re trying to achieve with Mental Snapp. Of course safety is the first preserve of an airline. Equally we want our users to be safe, to recognise our responsibility to them, and also to encourage them to live independently, to manage their own lives. Democratising mental health means recognising people for their expertise in managing their own condition, and giving them support to do so. Sometimes that means turning to professionals, but over the long term, it means that the individual develops the expertise they need to live a successful and independent life. To do that we need to devolve power, and treat people as having potential to live skillfully, artfully, creatively, actively and successfully. What we say at Mental Snapp is that we believe our users already have the skills to actively manage their mental health. What they need to do is to draw them out.

I wish all the entrants of the Stelios award and all the shortlist massive luck with their ventures. These are valuable and important contributions to society. I look forward to meeting you and finding out more at the awards ceremony on the 14th November. Here’s to disability, here’s to a mass movement. Power to the people – and good luck all.

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