Service User Voices

Lived experience and personal stories

A life beyond my wildest dreams: From ‘Paranoid schizophrenia’ to the House of Commons.

This short talk/speech on mental health/employment was made by Yvonne Stewart-Williams at The House of Commons; as part of the Paul Burstow MP parliamentary showcase reception on behalf of the Mental Illness and Employment Task and Finish Group: Addressing the serious health inequity of employment outcomes on Tuesday 13th January 2015.

Dear Supporter,

My name is Yvonne Stewart-Williams. I am a Lesbian, a Freemason, a British Quaker Overseer responsible for people’s pastoral care. I am a student studying with the Open University for a Combined Social Science degree. I am a Political Activist and ran for my local council in 2010, and again in 2014 and took part in hustings. I am a Gay Rights Campaigner and did my bit with Stonewall and other groups to secure the rights to equal marriage, I am a Mental Health Campaigner and Activist; I am also a mother.

My journey started twenty-two years ago, with a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia, and I was shown the door to the Day Centres. I didn’t accept this. For thirteen years, I battled. While battling I was introduced to Service Users groups and also therapeutic employment; where I could earn five pounds a day on top of my benefits, for four days out of five. At the end of the day, I decided that I would like to do some voluntary work outside of that group. One of my finest moments was instigating and having the delivery of The Pink Paper Lesbian and Gay free magazine, throughout the SLAM (South London and Maudsley Hospital Trust).

What changed for me was my Care Coordinator supported me into full time employment; which I am in today, almost eight years on, after thirteen years of unemployment. She did that by supporting me and giving me help with my application forms, believing in me, giving me mock interviews, phoning me just before the interview and giving me a reference.

I thank my Thames Reach employers, London wide Homelessness Organisation, which employed me as a Support Worker, which allowed me to have psychotherapy every week, and time out to do that, as well as meet with my Care Coordinator which I am still with; and also be mindful, during Supervision to talk about my mental health and to liaise with my Community Health Worker.

Now you may think that that is a happy ever after story, but I’ll let you know that two years into my employment with Thames Reach, I relapsed and ended up in prison for eight weeks after which the prison guards drove me to SLAM (South London and Maudsley Hospital) and I stayed there for three months.

My managers visited me in prison and hospital. My Care Coordinator and psychiatrist visited me. They wrote reports. I had to be re-deployed, but they kept me in my job.

Today I am a productive member of my workplace and my manager loves nothing better than when I walk into the place.

So if you think that someone with a severe mental illness, such as mine, can’t live a productive life. I am here to testify, they can and they will with support. It needs to be within the vision of recovery. It can’t be just about medication, which I am on as well. It can’t be just medication and day centres, or that they are quiet so that’s okay. It must be about the path to employment and support to get that. Allowing them to be in the mainstream of society, recovery and living a life beyond their wildest dreams. Even with mental illness and their condition as severe as it might be.

Thank you

If you would like to learn more about Yvonne, please see her blogs :

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‘Well you’re certainly very well spoken!’ : Social identity, psychiatric admission and safe spaces.

Ana* is a young woman in her twenties who is white, Scottish and a survivor of the psychiatric system.  In this brief interview, she speaks about an interesting exchange with a psychiatrist within a mental health hospital admission as an experience that brought to her awareness issues of identity, difference and, the importance of finding safe spaces and of feeling connected for those within whom difference is located…

Have you ever become conscious of you, as a socially located being, within psychiatric services?

I think being in psychiatric services was the point that I really realised that I had a social identity!  I was aware of being a woman but beyond that as a white person I have been able to go through life without the experience of having my identity picked over, thrown back at me and so on.  In our society white and straight is seen as the ‘default’ and it’s easy not to realise that those are identities in themselves and that we aren’t identity and history free (as much as we might wish to pretend we are).  I inhabit quite a confusing place class-wise as outside my working life I am often perceived to be someone who has a degree (I am not sure why) when in fact I have no GCSEs.

Inside of my working life, I am presumably perceived as working class because of the jobs I have held.  Only in psychiatric services have the two worlds collided when histories are taken. After an admissions assessment in which I’d tried to explain to a nurse and a psychiatrist that really, I had had quite enough and just wanted to die now and that a hospital admission was pointless, the psychiatrist smiled and said ‘Well you’re certainly very well spoken!’ I was flummoxed, did he mean for a mentally unwell person? For a Scottish person?  For a cleaner? For someone with my diagnosis specifically?

Mental health services as microcosms of society.

Perhaps for the first time in my life I wasn’t quite sure which part of my identity I was being judged on and realised there were lots of parts to the whole.  I started to wonder about other people’s experiences – clearly Mental Health (MH) professionals aren’t immune from issues in wider society, being people just like everyone else. I wondered how these perceptions affected other people in services. I was alarmed to find statistics that showed quite starkly how different people’s experiences of the MH system can be, particularly with regards to race.  Understanding this was a good introduction to the idea of systemic oppression and the idea that we can make decisions that unwittingly build oppression into systems.

I think MH services are a microcosm of society – all the same issues are played out within hospital walls. Whether it is a lack of understanding of the needs of women who have experienced male violence by placing them with men, or an inability to recognise racism built into the system – it’s all there. I am not sure we can affect change in the MH system without doing so in other systems and in society as a whole. The Mental Health system isn’t its own entity, it’s not simply buildings but the people within it – who are all part of society and prone to the same ‘not seeing’ or ‘not wishing to see’ as we all are.

To what extent do you feel solidarity or empathy with those who experience the more adverse/coercive end of the mental health system and; do you have any view on whether such empathy or solidarity could be useful in terms addressing such inequalities?

I certainly feel empathy, but I am not sure ‘solidarity’ is quite the right word, for me. Solidarity is often based on shared interests and I don’t think that everyone in the MH system do in fact share interests – I think we are often asking for very different things. I think for me it’s recognising that there are people who go through the same system as I do, but have completely different experiences – in some cases they go into parts of the system that I haven’t been, or experience the same parts of the system very differently. I wonder if my experience of using services is even relevant, when experiences can be so different.

When I write about or discuss mental health services I try to be open about the limits of my experience, and highlight the differences. I try to use an intersectional approach to understanding how different oppressions affect us, and to consider how that might affect how people experience the system.  I try to put this across without attempting to write or inhabit other people’s experiences. I try as best I can to share information or the experiences of others that is relevant as best I can. I try not to talk over people with different experiences and so on.

I’ve used the word ‘try’ a lot here, because I am sure that I am not always successful with any of this! I feel quite limited in my ability to affect change as one person who is quite isolated – I think change is usually achieved by groups and collectives and on a practical level, at a very basic level, I think we cannot change things if we do not know and so knowing and listening to others are good first steps. I am still at the very beginning and have a lot to learn and need to listen more than speak I think. Sometimes just shutting up is a good first step!

What have you learn from your experience which may be useful to others especially those who may be ‘different’ in some ways?

I’d say find others who share your experiences, or your understanding of your experiences. That has been immensely valuable to me. Those people haven’t always been the people who I’d expected they would be – I’m glad I kept an open mind.  Whether people choose to or are able to build safe spaces into current groups (support groups, or service user groups for example) or build supportive spaces within communities they are part of or build new groups entirely based on shared experiences I think people deserve a space where they don’t need to constantly explain themselves in order to make themselves understood.

I think sometimes having spaces we are understood can be safe places of retreat from the world – where our experiences or understanding of ourselves may be misunderstood. These may be physical spaces, online spaces and so on – there are lots of opportunities to seek out people like us, and also people not like us – both of which are valuable.  On a really practical level, I’d suggest that everyone asks to have some personal information about who they are, what their beliefs are and what is important to them included in their notes.  My trust has an ‘advanced statement’ template with space to include this information.

This makes particular sense if you have cultural, religious or dietary requirements that need to be known about but that you might be unable to explain if unwell. It can make it clear that your beliefs are part of who you are, and aren’t going to be misinterpreted as signs of ‘illness’. There is no guarantee your needs will be met, but the chances are increased. A lot of baggage travels with us through services, including our diagnosis and perceptions that people have of us due to our gender identity, class, race, faith or culture. Having something travel through services with you that is written by you and that offers a more complete picture of who you are is at least symbolic and will hopefully allow professionals and services to consider these, where they don’t already or more fully where they do.

Thank you for reading.  If you have found this article useful, please share it with others.

* Ana is pseudonym.

Want to learn more?

Ana is a regular Blogger, read or follow her blog on: or, get in touch with her via Twitter: @DramaLlama85

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections.  If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

Service Users’ Voices: Yvonne Stewart-Williams.

I will not attempt to provide any analysis but let the power of the narrative and Yvonne Steward-Williams’s lived experience speak.

In this short video (courtesy of Time To Change – Yvonne speaks of her experience of stigma and discrimination upon experiencing mental health distress.

Yvonne is a Lesbian Single mother of a beloved fourteen year old biological heterosexual male child born via artificial insemination. She has a twenty year Mental Health diagnosis of Schizo-Affective Disorder and was diagnosed with Erotomania – ‘Love Addiction’ four years ago. Yvonne has been in full time paid employment with her present employer ; a London based Homelessness Charity with specialism in Mental Health & Well-being for approximately seven years. She works there as a Complex Needs & Mental Health Support Worker. In addition, Yvonne is studying a OU – Open University part-time degree in Combined Social Science with Sociology & Social Policy. Yvonne is also :

· A Schizophrenia Commissioner

· An Aspiring Conservative Councillor-she stood at the 2010 Local Election

· A Stonewall Ambassador

· A Mental Health & Gay Rights Campaigner & Activist

· A Time to Change Ambassador

· A British Quaker

· A Woman Freemason

· A Published author :

Stewart-Williams, Y. (2010). Altered Perceptions: An 18 Month Diary, One Day At A Time, In The Life Of A Mental Health Service User. Butler, London.

Altered Perception is an eighteen month daily journey from an acute psychiatric hospital admission prior to Yvonne’s 2009 acute psychiatric admission via HMP Holloway Women’s Prison. This diary explores her lesbian sexuality; the parenting role of James, her young biological son in looked after foster care, and the support she provided to a loved one battling with prostate cancer. In this diary Yvonne reveals that for her it is not so much whether mental illness can be cured, but what one does in life in between each acute psychiatric episode. A kind of walking between the raindrops, until the getting wet experience

For further information on Yvonne :

Yvonne is on Twitter (@Yvonne_S_W)