Freedom to Speak Up Month: Why I Felt Compelled to Do Something

The manager of a school for young people who have been admitted into hospital due to their mental health has spoken about why she felt compelled to become an ambassador for speaking up and create an open environment where people felt safe and encouraged to air concerns.

October 2023 is the sixth annual Speak Up Month, which is led by the National Guardian’s office and provides an opportunity to raise awareness and highlight the difference which Freedom to Speak Up is making.

At Cygnet Group, an independent provider of services for individuals with mental health needs, learning disabilities and autism, there are more than 180 Freedom to Speak Up ambassadors across its 150+ health and social care services. They take responsibility for ensuring a culture where staff feel empowered and able to raise concerns is embedded across the organisation.

One of those ambassadors is Jayne Rowlands, the manager of Excel & Exceed, the school based within Cygnet Hospital Bury which serves four Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services wards.

On why she chose to be an Ambassador, she said: “For me it was about doing something that could make a difference and drive change.  

“Too often we hear ‘rumblings’ about things people are not happy about or things they think are not working in the best way. All too often no action was taken and I felt this was often driven by a fear of speaking out. The small stuff was quickly becoming the big stuff if it wasn’t dealt with.”

Jayne said that whilst staff are generally confident in reporting safeguarding issues, often lower level concerns were going unreported.

She explained: “When I have heard people complaining and questioned whether they have raised it, the response would often be ‘what is the point?’ or ‘I’m worried it will affect my relationship with my manager.’

“From my perspective it is about saying there is a point, and change is driven from the bottom up.  Being an Ambassador meant I would be able to get the message out there that it is a positive not a negative; that it is safe and non-judgemental and ultimately it is for the greater good for service users and for employees.”

The theme for Speak Up Month 2023 is ‘breaking barriers’, raising awareness of some of the issues which can prevent people from speaking up and exploring how these can be broken down to foster an inclusive culture for all.

On the skills needed to be an effective ambassador, Jayne commented: “It is important to have no preconceptions and to view the situation with a beginner’s mind-set.

“What is vital though is how I make the person feel.  I cannot expect people to speak up if they don’t trust me or the process and crucial to this is providing a safe space to speak; ensuring the person knows their conversation will be treated confidentiality; that they will retain autonomy and consent sought before sharing any information with the Guardian (with the caveat of safeguarding).

There may be sensitive or contentious issues discussed and it is imperative that I remain impartial and emotionally detached to be able to fully support the person and deal with the concern effectively. No bias or judgement at any point.”

Like all Freedom to Speak Up ambassadors at Cygnet Group, Jayne received full training on what the barriers to open conversations may be and how to overcome these.

Since taking on the role I have been approached by several members of staff for a variety of reasons,” she added.

“Dealing with relatively small issues at a local level means that we don’t have a bigger issue to deal with later down the line.

“I feel the impact of this upon patient and staff wellbeing cannot be underestimated.  Better staff wellbeing ultimately leads to better staff care.”

One incident Jayne dealt with concerned a member of staff who was repeatedly mis-gendering a service user despite reminders from colleagues and other professionals. The matter was dealt with and the outcome was positive. Yet from there, further improvements were able to be embedded at the service.

Jayne explained: “Reflecting upon this incident of speaking up resulted in myself and the school thinking about how we could support in ensuring a better understanding of LGBTQ+ and the negative impact of using the wrong gender/pronouns/names upon mental health. 

“We worked with students in school to create training which was delivered to both students and support staff.  This training looked at unconscious bias and the need to challenge this and it is envisaged that giving people a better understanding will improve outcomes for service users and create more inclusive working environments for our staff.

“All of this transpired from one conversation whereby a member of staff felt confident enough to trust our process and to speak up.”

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