Who: York St John University and Leeds and York Foundation Trust
What: Courses in the arts taught by university students and staff for people who use mental health services
Why: Build aspirations, encourage artistic activity and challenge the stigma of mental illness
Where: In York St John University
When: 2009-present date
Converge is a partnership between York St John University and Leeds Foundation NHS Trust delivering educational opportunities in the arts for people who use mental health services. The project is based on a convergence of the requirements of a university and of mental health service providers.
Mental health service users need good quality educational opportunities that raise their aspirations and enable them to move on into education or employment. The university needs high quality work-based experiences for arts students to increase their employability.
What distinguishes Converge is that it offers a model of collaboration between a university and a mental health service provider that can make a real difference in the lives of users of mental health services, full-time students and the university community. Each can learn from and alongside the other.
The strength of the approach is that it matches the ‘core business’ of its key providers: the university educates its students; the health service has a valuable provision for its clients; and full-time students complete their modules. Its value lies in how much more is created from and through the collaboration of the university and participants than if they worked separately.
- To offer a high quality educational opportunity for people who have used mental health services in the York area.
- To challenge the dynamics of social exclusion that make it difficult for people who have used mental health services to access good quality educational opportunities.
- To provide an opportunity for students to discuss how they might further their interest in theatre either through enrolling on courses at York St John University or through local theatre groups.
- To provide an opportunity for full-time students on the BA theatre degree to work alongside people who use mental health services.
Results and outcomes
In the academic year 2010-11
- 70 people with mental health problems completed our courses
- 25 students worked on the project
- We supported Out of Character, a theatre company comprising people who use mental health services
- We established a choir of students, staff and mental health service users.
This academic year 2011-12
- We estimate that 72 people will complete our courses in theatre, dance, creative writing and music.
- 27 university students will be involved in the project
- Out of Character is performing for four nights at York Theatre Royal directed by the theatre’s professional director.
- All the courses end with performances and reading in Create 12, the university arts festival.
What worked well
Being in a university: the transformative power of space.
Universities are places of hope and optimism. Students arrive with the future in mind. They bring energy, enthusiasm and often a real concern for others. From the outset of this project it was very important that the work took place in a university for two reasons.
- Universities are still places of privilege and status, they confer a role on those who enter them as students very different from that of a psychiatric service.
- To very clearly frame the activity as education and not therapy. We wanted mental health service users to enter as students not as patients or clients.
Being in a university: the transformative power of education
It is our intention to maintain the focus on theatre-making not on the problems and issues that may be part of students’ experience. This does not mean that we discourage conversation and work about mental health experience but it does mean that we do not foreground it.
Taking a light touch with mental health experiences
Issues of identity are central to the history and experience of people who have used mental health services. The impact of labelling, over-definite or premature diagnosis (particularly of schizophrenia and personality disorder) and the stigma attached to these conditions have often been more of a problem for people who use mental health services than the actual ‘mental health problem’ itself. We do not invite people to share their experiences of the mental health system, preferring that they work with us as artists and as students.
Support, mutual support and invisible mentoring
It is important to offer support, particularly in the early stages of a person’s involvement in the project. It is crucial to know where to draw the boundaries: we are not a mental health service provider and it is not our role to provide counselling or support of students who attend the courses. Nevertheless, there are three sources from which new students can gain support:
From staff and university students. We have learned that it is best to focus that support on the issues that make it difficult for a participant to engage in theatre and learning. In that sense we act rather like the personal tutor in a university setting who tends to confine support to issues that relate to the student experience.
In our experience, support is also available from other students on the course who may well know people and who are often very sensitive to the problems people are facing in doing the course. Last year we experimented with a mentoring system in which we invited more people who had already done the course to attend in the role of mentor. One person asked to do this coined the term ‘invisible mentoring’ by which he meant offering support without making that explicit.
The university disability service is able to offer support to students who wish to make use of it. This can be particularly helpful when a student expresses an interest in formalising their study at the university.
Taking ‘time out’
We have learned that is important to be flexible to allow people to take time out from the courses. There are times when students feel less able to come and need a break. This needs to be recognised and accepted; however we do say very clearly that we want students to attend all sessions and let us know if they are unable to attend.
From twilight to daylight: involving the university
At first we began this work in the early evenings. In some senses it was a ‘twilight course’ invisible to all except those who took part in it. This is a central feature of the long history of the invisibility of mental health. It is only in the last quarter of a century that the experience and circumstances of those labelled with mental health problems have become more visible.
It is not surprising then that our course should begin in the twilight hours. Gradually however this has changed. The provision of some of the courses in regular day time slots, the performances at the university Arts Festival, the support of the university and the appointment of a project leader have made the project more visible to the university.
- We have established a service level agreement with Leeds and York Partnerships NHS Foundation Trust who pay towards the salary of the project leader
- The university made very significant donations in kind to the project through the provision of rooms, staff time and resources.
- Work in partnership with other organisations and align, as far as possible the core business of the partnership organisations.
- Try to get the interest and support of key people in the organisation
- Adhere to the old aphorism: it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission
Gemma Alldred, Converge Project Leader
Telephone 01904876902 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Nick Rowe, Senior Lecturer in Faculty of Health and Life Sciences and Faculty of Arts
Telephone: 01904876902 Email: email@example.com
Photo: Tales from Kafka, Converge York