We all know the evidence – wellbeing increases with quality access to learning. Yet, if we ask what progression opportunities exist through a widening participation (WP) strategy for those within mental health (MH) service provision – what might the answer be?
- The annual costs of poor MH to the UK economy exceeds £100 billion (Centre for Mental Health)
- 9 out of 10 male prisoners have a diagnosed MH problem (Together for Mental Health, Wales)
- Annually 1 in 4 people in the UK (up to 16 million people) – are said to have a mental health problem (Time to Change).
- Mental Illness is now recognized as “one of the greatest — and growing — public health problems in the world” (Financial Times, 2017)
There is some WP type work going on (e.g. Converge: a community of learners) in MH but I think part of the problem it’s limited is because we broadly misunderstand MH and learning. This misunderstanding has allowed MH service provision (understandably, of course) to align education with therapy about mental illness alone rather than understanding what’s required for learning in spite of mental ill health. This misunderstanding helps to split provision making access to learning outside of therapy much more difficult than it needs to be.
For instance, recovery colleges (one example Sussex Recovery College) across the UK specialize in such courses offering anger management or how to understand depression. I have no intrinsic problem with this type of learning but if we are to use the term college – progression must be more than managing illness alone – shouldn’t it?
So, what are we doing about this? The Widening Access, Research and Mentoring (WARM) and RecoverED partnership have developed Co-CREATE to work extensively across communities and organisations. Co-CREATE is a 6 point action plan for WP engagement in MH in order to:
- Challenge internally/externally driven stigma
- Respect individual choice
- Engage on mutual grounds
- Appropriate suitable learning spaces
- Transformative learning
- Encourage (participant defined) progression
Our experience tells us that the barriers are no easy challenge. For instance, stigma (both systemic and personal) is crippling for engagement. Co-CREATE though is a fully interactive learning action plan which frames engagement around personal, informal learning. Exploring the strengths of each individual, we use action research to form projects which uses (and evidences) new community opportunities for engagement – personal learning which is project based and transformative.
Particularly in MH, power and authority are barriers – so we use stealth or sneak approaches to engage on mutual grounds (co-create) by encouraging groups to share and explore their passions – we’ve all got a passion somewhere – meaning the subject becomes a research focus and directed by the individuals of the group – not the ‘tutor’. We become ‘experts’ through mutual interest and engagement. An example of this is the 'A Stitch In Time' project available to view by clicking the link here.
As practitioners we often have to introduce outcomes and targets to participants who are already suspicious of learning at the very beginning of engagement. To overcome this we’re exploring something called retrospective accreditation with former colleague’s at a local university (a form of APEL).
Two heads of subject areas (history and social sciences) retrospectively assessed both pieces of work above – with some ‘fine-tuning’ they both agreed the work could meet the required learning outcomes of undergraduate, level four (first year degree) study. It was here, for the first time, students were introduced to outcomes and grades – had we mentioned these possible outcomes at the start then they all agreed they would have “simply been put off and wouldn’t have engaged”. These are perceptual (personal) barriers which we need to rethink – don’t we?
We’ve come a long way in ten years but we still have some mountains to climb. We firmly believe that until WP bites the bullet embeds itself nationally alongside MH services then there will continue to be a split in provision leaving progression routes fragmented and unfit for purpose.
We are approaching this national network through extensive partnerships building progression routes (whatever progression means to the person) to the opportunities many of us take-for-granted. This partnership includes education, third and voluntary sector as well as communities. To support this we are developing with the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning. The Community Research and Engagement Network is an evidenced based, good and best practice network linking with both participants as well as practitioners within MH (or whoever wants to be involved) – so, we will very soon be looking for members.
Dr Mark Richardson is an independent research and outreach worker working across mental health in South East Wales. Mark is a ‘product’ of a widening participation initiative and uses his ‘lived experiences’ exploring new opportunities across MH. He has been intrinsic in helping form the Widening Access, Research and Mentoring (WARM) as well as RecoverED – both peer led organisations specialising in research and outreach through WP in mental health. Our main passion and purpose is to introduce into mental health provision a model of learning which encourages progression, challenges stigma and reinforces strength’s based approaches as a formula for assisting recovery in and from mental illness.