The Recovery College Phenomena – Sandy Walker

I love being a researcher
Sandra Walker is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Mental Health at the University of Southampton

In 2015 I was fortunate enough to be awarded some funding from Solent NHS Trust to explore the networks of people with long term mental health issues. This project looked at how people manage their networks day-to-day and when they are in crisis, looking to see what the differences were between networks and how people negotiate the relationships within them. All the participants were recruited from community groups and many of the participants were students of a local Recovery College*.

As a researcher, I’ll be honest, I am most used to hearing people moan about mental health services so I was really happy to discover that there is a service offered which is widely held in high regard and thought it was worth highlighting that in a blog!

The Recovery College offers a fresh way of working that draws on the experiences and skills of people who have used mental health services and the staff who work in them.

They offer the opportunity to learn about mental health recovery and hope to inspire their students to take control of their lives. Many of those who attend this college have long term mental health conditions.

Students can attend a variety of courses, from one off sessions offering tasters for longer term courses on topics such as Mindfulness or education sessions about conditions, to skills for life which is a longer term programme which does what it suggests on the tin and teaches coping strategies and other skills to help students deal with what life throws at them. Students are people living with mental health issues, staff working in local health services and carers who are helping those living with mental health issues in the community.

One outstanding feature of this college compared to others that exist across the country is that it is situated within a local further education establishment, not within a mental health setting.

So what is so good about it?
Participants from my study (total number 25 with more than half being students at the college) suggested many things. The first that struck me was from someone who didn’t even attend the college at the time, she was already hopeful that it was going to be helpful and this optimism is an important issue in mental health work. Keeping hope when all appears to be lost is no mean feat, and it appeared that the reputation of the college itself was cause to believe it would help her. She said:

“I’m not actually starting until the New Year but that is something that I think is going to be really helpful to me.”

Other participants found the knowledge they gained about different mental health conditions useful, illustrated here:

‘It gives you an understanding which nobody had ever explained to me anything about any mental health illness’

They went on to say that this understanding gave them some comfort when considering how they were feeling. Also there was a sense of being seen as a valid individual, deserving of a good service:

“You feel like you are valued because they are offering this to you.”

The social element of the college was a key point raised by most who mentioned it:

‘‘The Recovery College is actually quite an important thing at the moment it’s just a way of again getting out, going somewhere that’s not medical and learning something and meeting people.”

“Having an institution specifically geared to being a space where people have mental health problems are normal that has been huge”

“I think just that acceptance without feeling judged or anything is just great for recovery, absolutely tremendous for recovery.”

Many had started their own support netwA young man suffering from depression sits and consults with hisorks comprised of those they had met on the courses, some of which had carried on long after the group themselves had ended:

“The friends that I’ve made while on a course at [the Recovery College] and we’ve got a little network’.
The implications in terms of long term support for these individuals is huge, especially in the current financial climate where long term support is a difficult thing to provide. The Recovery College appears to be helping people to provide it for themselves, at no cost. In these days of limited resource this is surely one area of mental health care that must survive.

*The Solent NHS Recovery College was co-designed and continues to be co-delivered by patients with staff support

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