If you walked through our doors, you would think you had walked into a community college. People from varying backgrounds, of all ages are using computers; reading books; chatting about upcoming courses, discussing things they have learnt.
However ours is not a run-of the-mill-college, the Recovery College is a pioneering concept where we support people who are experiencing mainly severe mental health conditions to become experts in their own self-care and wellbeing.
Our students are service users, carers and staff. Our peer trainers have their own mental health issues that have affected them significantly and they teach alongside a practitioner (eg Occupational therapist) This partnership is at the core of the Recovery College ethos. Having a peer trainer co-deliver a course offers inspiration to our students; they see that recovery is possible.
Students have a safe, welcoming place to learn more about their conditions, more about themselves and how they can start or continue their journey of recovery. Our courses, library and computers are available to people who use our services (and for up to 12 months after discharge), their friends, family, and carers and Trust staff.
Our college helps hundreds of people every year overcome some of the most debilitating aspects of severe mental health, allowing them to manage their problems, get on with their lives and often go into education or employment.
Some go on to become highly regarded facilitators at the College themselves.
Launched in September 2010 the college was the very first of its kind in the U.K. The initiative is so successful that we have a constant stream of health professionals from across the world visiting us learning how to replicate our model - including Denmark, Norway, China and Australia to name but a few.
The unique aspect of this college means you don't always know what to expect from people when they walk through the door and as with every new concept, the college has its challenges.
As with all mental health organisations, we have limited resources. We already offer work that is additional to our remit and this is solely down to our team wanting to take on more work, such as the trainee peer trainer programme that teaches and supports students to become peer trainers.
Boundaries are also challenging. The team really care and want everyone to move on their recovery journey. But understanding our core role is important and facilitators struggle with this on a daily basis. When you have a human being in front of you it's really hard to keep those boundaries in place at times. But the bigger picture is getting students to see that their best way forward is to take control of the journey themselves. This is why building the bonds between students in courses is so important so they can build their own networks of support.
It's not uncommon during the courses for students to reveal they are suicidal. Facilitators will take the student aside and talk to them about how they are feeling, who they have to support them and to get them to a position of relative safety with plans in place to talk to an expert and the student feeling supported, but also empowered.
On Monday we heard that one of our students, Jo, has just started a healthcare degree. This time last year she felt unable to leave her home and isolated from society, due to her mental health issues. Jo heard about the College and managed to get out to attend a few courses. She was inspired with what she heard, the people she met and the things she was learning about herself. As a result, her confidence grew and she started to volunteer with the College, becoming part of our team. She felt the support from the College and the peer trainers in particular, helped her see opportunities and the possibility of a new career. She has now fought off many years of feeling hopeless about her future to start a new chapter in her life.
On Tuesday a student Occupational Therapist attended one of our courses, and left us an evaluation telling us that 'we reminded them that it was far more important to see their patient in the light of how their condition was affecting their life, rather than being focussed on their diagnosis'. Ker-ching! It is far more helpful for a service user to see themselves recovering from everyday difficulties that affect their life; rather than a diagnosis that sits around your neck like a dead weight.
When I first started at the College I attended a number of courses to get a better idea of what we do. In one of the courses I met a student who had been in the service for 20+ years. He sat with his arms crossed, unwilling to participate, making snide remarks about what was happening. He refused to take part in the exercises saying it was a waste of time, he didn't want to go back to school and he had tried all the therapies and nothing worked. A carer next to him encouraged him to help her to complete the exercise for her needs which he did. By the end of the session he was engaging with the class and enjoying the course. At the end of the course he booked a number more. By the end of the second term he was putting together a plan to advise the government on how to support people going through what he went through and he is now following up on a number of leads. The College has this sort of impact every week and helps thousands of students every year.
One of the key concepts is that you are not your diagnosis. We always say labels are for jam jars! If you break it down to the difficulties you face each day, recovery feels possible.
When you then sit in a room with people who experience similar things to you, you don't feel so abnormal. You start to share and learn. When you then have a facilitator who has also shared similar experiences and then shares the tools and techniques that have helped in their own recovery journey, it is immensely powerful.
Our role as facilitators is not primarily to teach, but to introduce concepts and give students the time and respect to understand and think about it themselves, and to find the best way to incorporate it into their lives. The role works best not as a mentor, but as a supportive coach.
Every day we get to see people who are taking back control of their lives and it's a privilege to be part of their journey.