Volunteers Week 2022: Interview with Together National Steering Group Member Shaun O’Brien

At Together volunteers carry out crucial roles across our organisation and so for Volunteers Week 2022 we wanted to look in more detail at the work they do and thank them for that. Shaun O’Brien is one of those volunteers and is a member of our National Steering Group, who use their lived experience to offer strategic input and oversight to Together. That insight supports us to drive forward our ambitions and the direction of service user leadership.

We spoke to Shaun to find out more about his volunteering role:

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

So my name is Shaun. I am 33 years old and I live in Hampshire down on the south coast. I have a diagnosis of Bipolar and I first came into contact with Together as a service user. Back In 2020 I had been placed by the local council into supported accommodation, as I was homeless and my mental health was out of control, and Together were the service providers at that time.

As I used their services they also helped me connect with other local services to get support around my addiction to drugs. I can happily say I am now over 1 year and 10 months clean, and my mental health is currently in a really good place. I have been stable for a while and have even been discharged from my local community mental health team which I never felt could be possible at times.

What is the nature of your volunteering role at Together?

I am one of the 7 volunteers that currently make up Together’s National Steering Group (NSG) and I have been a member for just over a year. The NSG is a group of people who have lived experience of mental distress. We use that lived experience and service user experiences to support the organisation to provide direction and inform decisions that impact many people. We are a very diverse group of individuals who I feel all work very well together and between us we have many qualities and experiences that offers great knowledge and insight. We are directly supported by Together’s Service User Leadership team, but this doesn’t limit our reach on projects in which we have been involved in.

What kind of work does the NSG do within Together?

Since I joined the NSG, we have both collectively and as part of separate working groups, worked on a vast array of projects and decision making. That has ranged from advising on the wording of policies and documents, to helping write Together’s current “My Wellbeing Plan”. A couple of us recently had the great opportunity to be part of the interview panel for the new Director of Operations and Quality role within the charity while two of our members are part of a planning group for an upcoming event. One of our main projects from over the last 6 months though, has been supporting the direction of Service User Leadership, including launch of the new Service User Principles.

How have you found the volunteering role personally?

This was my first volunteer role, so going into it I was very unsure about expectations and pressure. Although we do have an expectation of commitment, for me this hasn’t been too much or overwhelming. We currently meet once a month, and for that we often have some prep work to read through to get us ready to make the most out of our meeting. We are always offered support whether it be for personal growth and needs or around tough times we may be going through. We also have frequent one to ones so we can talk about anything we need to. The people around me from my peers, the NSG chair and up to more senior management have always been open and willing to listen and support me where they can with my current needs.

What would you say to other people who may be considering a volunteering role?

My role within the NSG is a very safe and open place where I can sit and talk about my life, these experiences and my journey as a strength, without the fear of judgement. That judgement I think as many of us will know, is often something that comes when being open around struggles and mental health. Both within my work with the NSG and with other teams that I have had the pleasure of working with, I have been given confidence in my own voice. I can respectfully challenge things I may disagree with and I am listened to. Everyone respects each other’s point of view, even if sometimes those can be conflicting.

For me, being part of the National Steering Group has been a great honour and within the role, the amount of personal development and growth I’ve had has been unmeasurable. It has given me great confidence within myself and on my journey. It has helped to teach me how valuable I am and that I am more than just a diagnosis. It has shown me I can use my life experiences, both the positive and the negative, to help make a positive impact on the people around me and within Together.