Recovery to Discovery A powerful account from Dr Heather Marie Niman of her experiences with the Recovery College and her journey beyond

My story doesn't stop at the end of this film, in fact, the reality is that the Recovery College was the start of a new story for me - one which I had to write as I went along.

As you can imagine, I had never thought that I would become so ill, mentally or physically, no one does! And my career goals had always been very straightforward…be the best farm and equine vet possible, hopefully do a residency, maybe become a specialist and generally help a lot of animals and make a meaningful contribution to farming or racing! All things which I felt slipping away due to the limitations of my illnesses.

At the lowest points I felt I might never be useful again. Of course you already know that the Recovery College changed my perspective on this entirely, and has now been a trust wide success, with more than 200 alumni, a 94% success rate of students leaving more hopeful and high praise from an impressed and inspired CQC this Autumn. However, the journey didn't stop there…

Another student and I saw one major flaw as we went through the course, “where had this amazing info been when we were teenagers?” We wondered if we would have become so unwell if we had been equipped with these skills earlier in our lives, when we had our first experiences of mental ill health. It is known that many of the major mental health disorders begin in adolescence, and our own experience reinforced this, so we wondered if we could develop a similar course to the Recovery College to help 16-25 year olds. Anna Burhouse, the project lead who had secured the original Health Foundation funding for the Recovery College, got behind our little idea with so much enthusiasm that we almost started to believe we could do it!

Again it was the Health Foundation who gave us valuable support. They invited Anna, Keith, Maddie and myself to their conference on Person Centred Care in Mental Health in September 2015 and there we met a large ginger cat who became our Disco College mascot(!) and so much support it was unbelievable! The terms “shared decision making”, “peer support” and “self-management” were common parlance among these doctors and mental health professionals, and we began to see that although we might be doing something new, it is a very credible area where the NHS is working hard, challenging itself and gathering evidence.

Confidence restored, we cracked on and a year on from the original Recovery College, in Autumn 2014, we were nervously anticipating the start of our very own pilot course in Hereford! I was hoping that the curriculum we had co-produced with our 2gether experts would be as transformative for our students as the Recovery College had been for me.

As we adapted the course for our younger audience we came up with a sparkly new name… rather than “Recovery” we named our college “Discovery” and our team “Team Disco”… there is a serious reason behind this; whilst Recovery is a very appropriate goal for adult patients, for a lot of young people they cannot remember who they were before illness or distress began, so we wanted to empower them with skills they could use to properly ‘discover’ their interests, their personalities and their potential outside the limits of their illnesses or disorders. It also of course gave us unlimited reasons to make things sparkly, hang disco balls all over the place and dance to cheesy disco music in an attempt to be cool and make our students laugh!

When designing the course curriculum we had input from psychotherapy and mental health nursing experts from 2gether who brought invaluable experience of teaching groups of young people, mindfulness, and all the wonderful work that the teams do with young patients in the trust.

Across the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 we ran our two pilots in Hereford and Cheltenham, and met some wonderful students who definitely taught us as much as we taught them! We hoped so much that we had made a difference to them and were overjoyed to have some lovely feedback. After all of the hard work and some great success stories (students made progress we hadn't even dreamed of!) we had the amazing news this summer that we are now commissioned by 2gether…we are ecstatic! We will be running the next course in early 2016.Hopefully the more courses we run the more we can break down stigma, give hope and inspire growth in these young people needing mental health services.

One of the most important aspects of the Recovery College is that the evidence-based interventions and theory are taught by what we now term ‘experts by experience’… real people with lived experience of the illnesses and disorders about which they are teaching. This is an incredible change compared with traditional medical treatment and therapy; both of which are necessary for all patients dealing with enduring mental health difficulties and were vital to my recovery, but naturally treat you in the patient/physician model.

Keith and Suzie, who had written and then led our course, were both extremely courageous and very honest about their journeys, and because of their understanding and empathy were able to manage us as a group and allow everyone time to feel safe, and thus contribute and share their experiences. It was their work which inspired me to become a peer trainer myself and in June this year I graduated with a BTEC in Education and Training, funded by 2gether.

Since the Recovery College pilot, co-production has become an integral part of the social inclusion team at 2gether; with volunteers, experts by experience and patients working together with experienced psychotherapists, psychiatrists, nurses and occupational therapists. It creates an environment where new ideas can be considered, trialled and evaluated and where everyone’s contribution is valued.

Only last week our first paper as a team; ‘Coaching for recovery: a quality improvement project in mental healthcare”was published in BMJ quality. We're all very proud of this as a great example of co-production and hopefully a sign of things to come within the trust. I hope our work will inspire other NHS trusts to take the leap and begin to empower their patients in the same way the 2gether trust has done with us.

With very special thanks to Dr. Pawan Rajpal - consultant psychiatrist, the Priory Hospital Bristol, Dr Mary Doyle, Tony Navin, Anna Burhouse, Keith Coupland, Suzie Wild, Maddie Rowland, Jo Denney and NHS 2gether's Crisis, Recovery and Social Inclusion Teams

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