It’s the taking part that counts – How using social networks might support mental health recovery. Sandra Walker writes about how her research took an unexpected turn.

Managing our mental health is something we all do and for many of us it is a fairly straightforward process, but a significant number of us are likely to find it rather more complex, sometimes  needing support from our GP or mental health services. As part of our research in CLAHRC Wessex we’re looking at how people use their social networks to improve and manage their mental health.

The study is funded by Solent NHS trust and works in close collaboration with the Recovery College based at Highbury College in Portsmouth. The specific aim of this study is to use network mapping to assess people’s personal networks and the support they have to manage their mental health. We aim to answer the following questions:

  • What activities, resources and social networks support the management of mental health and well-being if you have a long term mental health condition?
  • What value do people give to different social network members, organisations and activities? How does this match up with support given by formal mental health support provision?
  • How can a social network mapping be used to connect people to the links and resources needed to support them in managing their mental health and well-being?

As part of this study I’ve been to the Recovery College to talk about the project with a small group of volunteers who agreed to share their thoughts about the project and participate. I gave a short presentation to share the what, why, who and how of the project and then asked for feedback. Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) of this nature is, I have found, always an inspirational and energising experience and this occasion was no exception. Firstly I asked if it was a valid topic to explore and the resounding answer was yes. The group had some excellent suggestions for ways to make it more positive for participants and were keen to ensure that the experience of completing the maps would be a positive one for participants. They noted a couple of potential pitfalls, one of which we had considered but the other we hadn’t.

One thought was around the possible distress of realising your social network was more sparse than you had realised. To address this people suggested adding a 3 point action plan which the person felt was manageable, and to begin making any changes that person would like to see. People also suggested that an optional follow up email a couple of weeks later would be helpful, asking the participant if anything had been brought up for them as part of the process and if so how they had dealt with it.

The big issue we hadn’t seen was the differences in behaviour when managing your mental health in recovery, compared to during a period of crisis. The social network may be well populated and utilised when someone is managing well – but during a mental health crisis research clearly shows (the experience of this group supported this) that people do not use their social networks to the same degree, sometimes not at all. The group felt it would be essential to capture this and suggested using different colours to indicate their normal social state and the difference when they are unwell – essentially completing two network maps within one. This idea has the potential to provide some rich information and research results that would potentially have been missed if this meeting hadn’t occurred. A perfect example of how PPI works!

Sandra Walker is working on how social networks can aid people with managing a mental health condition
Sandra Walker is a lecturer in Mental Health at the University of Southampton
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