“I really love doing this work” – Former service user returns to Cygnet as an Expert by Experience

A former inpatient who was hospitalised due to mental health struggles is now using her experiences to help others and bring about positive changes across services.

Ella was an inpatient at Cygnet Hospital Godden Green after receiving an official diagnosis for her mental health.

She has now begun working for the Lived Experience Network as an Expert by Experience – someone who has personal experience of using or caring for someone who uses health, mental health and/or social care. She will be supporting people hospitalised due to their mental health at Cygnet Health Care services.

She will use her experience to talk with current service users and share their feedback with senior staff so that necessary changes can be made to ensure the service provides the best care to those who need it.

Ella was first admitted to an acute service for her mental health in mid-2022, shortly after finishing her degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Bath. She was an inpatient at multiple services, the final one being Cygnet Hospital Godden Green.

“When I first experienced significant changes in my mental health a few years back it was really scary,” she explained. “You don’t understand what’s happening to you, it’s isolating and there’s so many unknowns.

“When my mental health rapidly declined in 2022, I knew I desperately needed help.”

Ella spent two months at Cygnet Hospital Godden Green, in Sevenoaks, a 33-bed hospital providing specialist acute and PICU services for women. Just before leaving the service, she was told about the Expert by Experience programme but felt the timing wasn’t quite right.

“Things were still so fresh for me, I wanted to make sure I was in the best place to help others,” she explained. “Everyone was so lovely about it and said the opportunity is always there for me if I want to take it on the future.

“After six months, I got back in touch with the team and felt I was ready to really make a difference.”

As part of her Expert by Experience role, Ella meets with service users from three Cygnet Health Care services; Cygnet Hospital Maidstone, Cygnet Hospital Ealing and Cygnet Hospital Churchill.

In 2018, Cygnet became the first independent provider of healthcare services to invest in a full-time Expert by Experience Lead. Ella helps to ensure the voices and opinions of service users are heard and considered across the organisation and that feedback is actioned upon to improve its 150+ services.

She said: “As Expert by Experiences we do have a big impact on the service users and the services. The impact isn’t just long term, you get to see a positive change literally every shift.

“Every time you have a one-to-one with a service user, they seem so grateful and appreciative and you can really turn their day around. They get to see how much you understand them and their experiences in terms of what they’re going through. It’s so powerful, having someone listen to you with full empathy and being totally non-judgemental.

“One service user said to me ‘I don’t know what I’d have done if we hadn’t had this chat’. It makes you realise just how important your role is.”

Ella said she wants to inspire service users to realise that, no matter how dark their situation is at present, things can turn around.

“I think as Expert by Experience, we are the people that are holding up the flashlight at the end of the tunnel for our service users.

“I really love doing this work. It’s given me the opportunity to be my full authentic self. In society, there is a lot of stigma around mental health and we’re taught to shy away or hide that part of ourselves. What has been liberating about the Expert by Experience role is that I can come to work, hold my head up high and say ‘I have a mental health condition and it is nothing to be ashamed of’.

“I’m using that difficult time in my life to create positive change and brighten other people’s lives.

“I get to embrace that side of me and use it to really do some good. It is so empowering.”

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