As one of seven citizen ambassadors for Surrey Heartlands, mother-of-two Sally Dack will be focusing her attentions on mental health issues. Sally talks about her professional and personal experiences and what she hopes to achieve.

Life isn’t always a walk in the park. If you break a leg, getting the right services and support is usually straightforward. But if you have a broken spirit, how easy is it to get the right help?

In my career, particularly as head of safer custody in a female prison in Surrey, I have seen many desperately ill women suffer from mental health issues that lead to self-harm and suicide.

Then a few years ago, I experienced post-natal depression and it can be a very dark place to be. For those living with mental health issues – and one in four people will have a problem at some point in their lives – you are at the most vulnerable time in your life and having an advocate to ensure you get the right support is extremely important.

When I saw the citizen ambassador role for mental health advertised it spoke volumes to me. Patients need to have a voice and they need an advocate so this opportunity was really powerful to me.

There are six other citizen ambassadors and each of us have been aligned to one of the workstreams in the Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership’s plan, covering: urgent and emergency care out of hospital care and primary care; women and children’s services; cardiovascular; musculoskeletal; cancer; and digital.

Our remit is to engage more local people, including diverse groups, and those who traditionally don’t have a say, to discover what their experiences are, and to influence improvements and change.

It is very important that our role is independent, as opposed to being run by local health services, and we are supported by Healthwatch Surrey which helps ensure this independence. I want to be a critical friend, with the emphasis on ‘friend’. 

The chair of my programme board and the clinical lead have made me very welcome. They are very enthusiastic about having me on board and they have a clear commitment to understanding the user experience.

They have asked me to look carefully at the key deliverables of the mental health programme. But they aren’t telling me where to go or who to see. For 10 hours a month for the next year, I have the space to determine these things and, supported by Healthwatch Surrey, I’m starting to explore how to engage user groups.

For 10 hours a month for the next year, I have the space to determine these things and I’m starting to explore how to engage user groups.

Healthwatch has already got some good research to work with so I have a running start. I’d like to build on these conversations to see if there are any blind spots, and look at the available data to see if there are gaps. Some areas may need a deeper dive. I may find, for example, that while it appears a service is performing well, the perception among patients and families is that the service isn’t very good. I need to understand why and have those uncomfortable conversations with the programme board for patients and families.

I will also be looking for some great patient stories. I want to capture those, along with the patient voice. Ultimately, I’d like the programme board to be informed by a true representation of the patient voice that really gets the flavour of the good, the bad and the ugly.

I want to reinforce and champion good work, and influence improvements where possible. It will be amazing if the voice of patients and families can have a real impact by endorsing what we are doing in mental health, or in steering the ship in a different direction. That would be phenomenal, and I think it is the way to go.