Background of The Irish Advocacy Network
The Irish Advocacy Network was established from a conference that took place in Derry. In 1999, approximately 270 individuals from all over Ireland who had mental health difficulties came together with the purpose of creating a representative voice for service users. Several key people presented this vision to health boards across the Republic of Ireland. They also went on to engage with other service users, health board staff and mental health employees.
Subsequently, an elected management committee composed of people from the island of Ireland, was charged with establishing the Irish Advocacy Network. In 1999, Organisational review and strategic plan 2012-2014 Page 9 with support from a number of key people within the HSE, the Irish Advocacy
Network was constituted and officially formed.
The United Kingdom Advocacy Network (UKAN) was one of the main inspirations for the establishment of the Irish Advocacy Network. UKAN was founded in 1990, established by grass roots activists who strongly believed that advocacy should be independent and provided by people who have direct experience of using mental health services. The main objective of advocacy, according to UKAN, is to enable people to advocate for themselves.
‘Mind Yourself’, a peer-led advocacy organisation from Derry, developed an Open College Network accredited training programme to empower service users to speak up for themselves or for those in recovery to become qualified to support other service users. IAN has partnered with Mind Yourself to provide this training for all of its staff and volunteers.
IAN developed the concept of peer advocacy across Ireland and fostered the concept of recovery. For the first few years, a handful of IAN peer advocates worked on a voluntary basis. There are now paid staff members and a number of volunteers. IAN provides paid jobs, volunteer work and training opportunities to people with experience of mental health problems. This is something IAN is proud of and continues to promote. In providing these opportunities, IAN helps people with mental health problems from the entire island of Ireland to reduce the effects of social exclusion.
“We can look into the sunlight of tomorrow and say yes; yes the Irish Advocacy Network has the determination to be the voice and the watchdog of people who encounter emotional distress.”
Paddy McGowan, founding member
IAN established its services within the majority of HSE areas, as well as with the Belfast Health Trust in Northern Ireland, developing strategic partnerships and alliances in cross border health services. IAN was involved in the concept of peer advocacy and support in several areas of Ireland. It carried out surveys and was heavily involved in research projects to inform the future of services and professional practice. It developed the capacity and expertise to provide training and information to a number of audiences and partner organisations. IAN was also commissioned to carry out an in-depth survey in order to inform the current mental health policy for the Republic of Ireland.
Ireland: A Vision for Change and Sharing the Vision
By facilitating and promoting the amplification of the voice of people experiencing mental health challenges throughout Ireland, the Irish Advocacy Network works to empower and enable service users to speak up, speak out and regain control of their lives. IAN uses self-experience of mental and emotional health problems to understand peers in their journey of recovery and help them to reclaim rights, entitlements, full and equal citizenship. The need for this support is particularly noticeable for those whose lives are directly impacted by mental health institutions. The Irish Advocacy Network therefore believes peer-advocacy has a unique role to play in supporting the rights and defending the entitlements of people living in these environments. IAN is committed to adapting to new challenges to health care services, practices and transformations within communities by establishing strategic partnerships and alliances. We also seek to address relevant recommendations as set out in national policies.
Vision for Change
Vision for Change (2010) brought about a new optimism for the future of mental health services in Ireland. It also emphasised the need for service user led services and the right of mental health service users to access advocacy.
Recommendation 3.3 read: “Innovative methods of involving service users and carers should be developed by local services, including the mainstream funding and integration of services organised and run by service users and carers of service users.”
3.2 recommended that:
“advocacy should be available as a right to all patients in all mental health services in all parts of the country”.
Sharing the Vision
The Irish Advocacy Network was happy to go some way to meet these recommendations but acknowledges that there are challenges regards access and availability of advocacy services across the country. The new national policy document on mental health, Sharing the Vision (2020) notes:
“that there are gaps in access to advocacy supports and that some needs are unmet.”
Chapter 3, (p58)
The Sharing the Vision policy document also re-emphasises the right to advocacy where:
“the development of additional advocacy services (should be) pursued.”
Explicitly, specifically and in favour of the style of advocacy the Irish Advocacy Network provides, Sharing the Vision places advocacy in terms of assuming: an important role in enabling people to know their rights and voice their concerns. (7.3.4)
Sharing the Vision also describes advocacy in terms of people needing:
“to advocate for themselves (‘self-advocacy’), need support from a peer (‘peer advocacy’) …”
The Sharing the Vision national policy also identifies a growing need for advocacy services to uphold and perform functions as set out in other related national policies and legislative documents; namely the Safeguarding Vulnerable Persons at Risk of Abuse – National Policy and Procedures (2014) and the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act.
It is our contention that the above policies elevate the importance of providing support through peer advocacy during one of the most vulnerable times in people’s lives. This informs and guides peer advocacy services of the Irish Advocacy Network where we prioritise those who find themselves under institutional and residential care. Here, the environment can be particularly challenging, where the protection and defence of service user rights is crucial and fundamental to our work.
The Irish Advocacy Network will utilise to the best of its ability resources to address the needs and meet the recommendations as presented above. The Irish Advocacy Network believes it is well placed to meet these recommendations but acknowledges challenges that may impact on its ability to fully address these. In doing so we seek to increase capacity, engage key stakeholders, establish strategic partners and seek additional funding to allow this peer led advocacy organisation to prosper and reach out to all who could benefit from our support.