By Suffolk User Forum

Healthy Together Team (pictured: James Woolnough, Healthy Together Interim Project Coordinator, Chloe Newman, Healthy Together Peer Support Worker and Alex Knight, Business Support)

It has been known for many decades that the average life expectancy for people living with severe mental illness (SMI) is up to twenty years less than the general population. This is mostly due to preventable physical health problems which are often not diagnosed or managed effectively. Despite a longstanding recognition of this health inequality, it is only recently that practical steps have been taken to address it and Suffolk User Forum is an enthusiastic partner in this work.

The Mental Health Five Year Forward View, NHS England and NHS Improvement has committed to leading work to ensure that “by 2020-21, 280,000 people living with SMI have their physical health needs met by increasing early detection and expanding access to evidence-based physical care assessment and intervention each year”.

The key priority for healthcare in Suffolk is that physical health and mental health are meaningfully integrated, with people receiving the right support at the right time. With more than 3,800 people in Suffolk with an diagnosis of severe mental illness (SMI), Annual Physical Health Checks provide an opportunity to identify physical health needs and interventions that can lead to improved health and wellbeing.

Whilst some people can take forward their own healthcare goals, about 10% of people living with SMI are more vulnerable and experience barriers to accessing healthcare and follow up appointments due to their diagnosis, personal circumstances, and mental health needs.

NHS partners, who carry out most annual health checks, can refer people to Suffolk User Forum’s Healthy Together Project, for additional support for follow up appointments.

Healthy Together Champion, James Woolnough said,

“We take the time to communicate with people in the way that they prefer, and this can sometimes be by telephone, text, email, or meeting face to face. This gives us the opportunity to build trust and to get to know people. We provide a wide range of support which starts with listening and understanding a person’s individual situation as well as providing structured peer support and goal planning, working at each person’s own pace”.

In its first year (2021-2022) the project has supported eighty people  across 50 healthcare pathways, including help to attend hospital or dental appointments, flu and COVID vaccinations, clinical screenings, and lifestyle interventions. Fundamental to the success of this work is the rapport that we build up with people as peers rather than as professionals.

Suffolk User Forum is a service user-led mental health charity and brings the gift of lived experience and mutuality. It became a member of Equally Well in 2021 as part of its commitment to champion equality in healthcare.

Jayne Stevens, CEO at Suffolk User Forum, is adamant that living with a mental health illness should not lead to physical health inequalities.  She said,

“We believe physical and mental health should be given the same respect and care. Importantly our Healthy Together Project supports people to be in control of their lives and their personal health care goals. Providing additional support makes the difference.”

Project data has shown that the additional support provided increases the uptake of healthcare follow up appointments and achievement of wellbeing goals by 92% leading to significant improved health outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

Whilst 66% of support needs were identified by professionals, 34% of Healthy Together Peer Support that has been delivered helped people with previously unidentified support needs.

The Healthy Together team has supported improved access to COVID-19 vaccinations, increasing take up by people living with SMI using the project to just over 90%. Working with local NHS partners additional personalised support is now being offered to those people living with SMI, who have not yet taken up COVID-19 vaccinations.

John (Ipswich) who was referred to Healthy Together for healthcare follow up appointments, including podiatry care, has said how the support from Healthy Together has transformed his life. After receiving podiatry care at home, he is now pain-free and mobile. He is also more confident to arrange his own appointments.  Importantly, our Healthy Together team were able to help John with a housing repair for his kitchen sink. John describes Healthy Together as “Brilliant support”, stating “since Healthy Together has been on board, we have been chipping away at my healthcare needs and things are moving forward. Before nothing was happening. I’m so happy that they managed to get my sink unblocked as the people I tried to speak to weren’t very nice.”

Suffolk User Forum’s Healthy Together project has just secured funding for 2022/23. The project will now to be expanded to offer support to people who receive their SMI Annual Health Checks by primary care practitioners, providing the service to around 380-400 people in the coming year.


Suffolk User Forum is an independent mental health user led, involvement, peer support and advocacy organisation.

The Charity’s Healthy Together Peer Support Project is funded by the Ipswich and East, and West Suffolk Clinical Commissioning Groups.