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Day 4: Peter Beresford on Shaping Our Lives

The future of mental health interview series, day 4

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Peter Beresford

There are controversies about what to call individuals who find themselves in the mental health system: should they be called clients, patients, service users, or some other name that better gets at the social control aspect of mental health services provision? Those controversies aside, Peter Beresford speaks eloquently about the experiences of service users and the vital role that user-led organizations have to play in supporting and advocating for individuals in emotional and mental distress.

EM: You are co-chair of the organization Shaping Our Lives. Can you tell us something about its mission and activities?

PB: Shaping Our Lives is a national independent disabled people’s and service users’ user-controlled organization and network, committed to increasing the say and control of long term health and social care over their lives and services that impact on them ( We are all service users ourselves, including mental health service users, people with learning difficulties, people living with HIV/AIDS, physical and sensory impairments etc. We carry out research and consultations to add to ‘user knowledge’. We are committed to equality, diversity and inclusion in how we work and in our goals, particularly to challenge divisions on the basis of race, gender, age, disability, culture, class, sexuality, belief, etc. We produce a wide range of resources to support this and work with both grassroots organisations and government to achieve change ( We have been around nearly twenty years and proud of it!

EM: You are interested in social policy, social work, and particularly in how service users of mental health services can better participate in the process. Do you have any top tips for service users as to how they can get the “best experience” from current mental health services?

PB: To be honest, sometimes in my experience it can be best to keep away from mental health services – because they can have damaging and stigmatizing effects. I have had to use them, but for me it is very important that I have support from my family and friends, people who can keep me ok. I have had help from services, but like many mental health service users also problems. To get the best experience I think you really need either to have an advocate – who could be a good and supportive friend, or a helpful relevant professional, like a social worker, so that they can speak up alongside you and stop things going wrong. Also another key base to have is being involved in a service user led organization (a ULO) where you can get the strength and support of people with shared experience around you. I was lucky I had good long-term support from an NHS psychologist, but because of cuts this is less and less likely to happen. But we can gain in empowerment from being involved in a ULO and know better as we live longer how to handle who we are and our difficulties.

EM: What do you see as the “future of social work”? What would you like to see happen “with” or “for” that profession?

PB: I think social work can be a wonderful profession and service because it is inherently social in its understanding, so sees the person in their context and environment and doesn’t just see all their problems as their own fault or responsibility. Of course not all social work and social workers are up to this, but many are really helpful and outside the medicalised model that can be unhelpful in mental health services. They can be great advocates. I may be biased because my partner and one of our daughters are both social workers! The UK government however seems to dislike social work, perhaps because it helps those who have little say or power and because of its commitment to social justice, equality and addressing diversity. So its future is in some question. I hope though that this will pass, social workers will keep strong links and maintain their involvement with service users, which has been especially helpful in social work education - and be there as a resource for us as service users for the future.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders” and the use of so-called “psychiatric medication” to “treat mental disorders” in children, teens and adults?

PB: Sadly I think the prevailing system for responding to mental health problems is over-medicalised and over-reliant on drug treatments. Drugs can have a helpful role to play, where they are used carefully and sensitively. But that isn’t the general picture. The psychiatric system of analysis, diagnosis and ‘treatment,’ is antiquated, has a poor evidence base, clearly discriminates on grounds of race, gender and class, has a poor track record and in the UK has increasingly been starved of cash and other resources. Also there is a cruel political determination to force mental health service users off welfare benefits, often into inappropriate and damaging paid work or penury and fear.

Now we need a different approach, based much more on a social approach, which really listens to the individual service user, seeks to understand them in their social context, is not judgemental or based on assumptions of pathology and deficit which stigmatise people. Such a system where people with lived experience are there in key roles to help, offering advice lines, crisis provision and out of hours support is the way to go. I think the new discipline of ‘mad studies’ offers some real ways forward here and I hope very much that it has a big impact on public policy and practice because I think it will be much more helpful in supporting people and helping them make the most of their lives than what we have now. Check out the website of the Mad Studies Network -

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

PB: First try and talk to people you trust, especially if they have their own experience of distress. They won’t point you to magical cures or sure-fire treatment, but they will probably help you to realize that you can come through this, that it is part of who you are, there are ways of dealing with it and it isn’t the end of the world and however bad at times you may feel, it doesn’t have to be the end. Cliches really are true in my experience, I repeat them to myself and they help, like, where there’s life there’s hope. Others have already made this journey and have tips to pass on.

I have a number of simple things that I’ve learned that help me. They aren’t original but they are really helpful. One step at a time. Just try and get by the next few minutes. Don’t anticipate. Don’t think about tomorrow or even this evening. Don’t create enormous negative pictures for yourself. It is true that if another person can do it, then so can you! Not only do all good things come to an end, so do all bad things.

Breathing and relaxation exercises can help. Learning skills to deal with how you feel really can help. Ask other people about what resources, what information, what support has helped them. If there are any local user led services, they are likely to be helpful. Try and get involved if you can with a user led organization or advocacy group. Things do get better and we are stronger together than alone, so try as hard as you can to keep talking, to keep in touch, to find people you can trust. All this is what has worked for me as a long-term mental health service user. Simple things like keeping eating, getting sleep, having a walk if you can, can help. I have met wonderful people and made wonderful friends because of my bad times of distress. If you want to know more about my experience then read my:


Peter Beresford OBE is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University London, Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex, Co-Chair of Shaping Our Lives, and a long-term user of mental health services. His latest book is All Our Welfare


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

His latest book is The Future of Mental Health: Deconstructing the Mental Disorder Paradigm.

To see the complete roster of interview guests, please visit here:

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