Recovery Colleges are an increasingly common therapeutic resource that empower people with mental health problems to become experts in their own recovery.
With courses springing up all across the country, they often centre on the ethos of co-production to create services for people with lived experience to develop skills, understand mental health, identify goals and support access to other opportunities.
Szara Froud, a mental health professional who works for Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, worked with freelance artist Anastacia Tohill to develop an art-led Recovery College course in the region.
Anastacia, who has bipolar disorder, had used mental health services and wanted to channel her passion for creativity in the recovery process to help others. She and Szara worked together to plan and design the course, based on the New Economics Foundation's Five ways to wellbeing principles:
2. Be active
3. Take notice
The course centred on activities that enabled participants to create their own wellbeing notebook or diary, using artistic techniques such as marbling.
"People get completely absorbed in what they are doing and for a couple of hours, they forget about their problems while interacting with others and having fun."
As well as having a completely equal role in the planning and design of the course, Anastacia and Szara always deliver sessions together.
"We would never deliver it any other way than together… it just wouldn't work without both of us bringing our skills, experience and personality to the course."
Taking this co-productive approach made the course much more accessible to service users than if it were provided just by health care professionals, or if it were solely a user-run group.
But as well as the advantages for participants, Szara and Anastacia benefitted greatly from working with each other. Szara brought a wealth of experience of supporting people in one-to-one interventions, but to start with she wasn't confident running courses or presenting to groups. Anastacia had taught before, but not in a mental health capacity.
So, they built on and learned from each other's strengths, leading to personal development for both of them.
"When we first delivered the course, my hands were shaking and I felt really nervous but working with Anastacia reassured me as she had teaching experience. Another benefit is that I've felt more able to talk openly about my own mental health problems."
"I've seen Szara grow in confidence every time we run the course. She tells me I've helped her, but working together makes the course really good. And working equally alongside a mental health professional has helped me to find other paid work."