Each Thursday evening in the drama studios at York St John University, Out of Character, a theatre company made up of people who use mental health services, students and staff, meets to rehearse. Next door, theatre students and staff run a course that provides a broad introduction to theatre.

This term, both groups will be working on performances for the university arts festival. These events are part of a project developed in the university to offer good quality educational experiences for people who use mental health services.

The project has been of such interest to North Yorkshire and York Primary Care Trust that they have recently appointed an education support worker who will work between the PCT and the university to develop and extend educational opportunities for people who use mental health services. In the next year we hope to offer courses in theatre, dance and music.

People with mental health problems can find it difficult to access good quality educational opportunities. The stigma that surrounds mental health and the social challenges that face a new student can seem daunting. The aim of this project is to build a bridge between the nearby mental health services and the university to make the place more accessible, less daunting and foster a “meeting” between mental health services users and university students and staff that can be beneficial to both.

The project began in January 2007 when tutors and some students on the theatre degree offered an introduction to theatre course for local people who use mental health services. The course was advertised among mental health professionals and introductory meetings were held for those interested. It included an introduction to lighting and staging, devising, working with character, text, street performing, a theatre visit and performance.

We were very clear that we wanted to advertise and deliver the course within an educational frame. We were very wary of using any language that might suggest some sort of therapy or group work experience. We considered that this would be inappropriate in a university environment and more importantly it would be unattractive to potential students. The educational model conforms to the ambition of mental health professionals to provide educational and day services in valued and “normal” community settings.

Considerable development has taken place since that first course although the model and approach remain the same. At the time of writing the education support worker is taking up post and we offer two theatre courses and support a performing company, Out of Character. The first dance course run by third year students and supported by an occupational therapist is concluding and we have plans to work with tutors and staff in the music department to develop those opportunities this year.

At first we began this work in the early evenings. In some senses it was a twilight course invisible to all except those who took part in it. This perhaps reflects the long history of the “invisibility” of mental illness. The performance of Out of Character at the Faculty of Arts Create ’09 Festival, the support of the university and the creation of the education support worker have made the project more visible and brought this work at the university into the daylight.

We have learned a great deal in the first two years:

  • The focus on an educational model (rather than a therapeutic one) has been important in maintaining clarity and may be one of the main reasons why recruitment and retention of participants has been high.
  • Issues of identity have been central to the history and experience of people who have used mental health services. We recently invited participants to complete a questionnaire in which they were asked: do you want to create work about mental health issues? The choices were: “never”, “sometimes”, “most of the time” and “always”. All who completed the questionnaire chose “sometimes”. For each person there seems to be a balance to be struck between over-identification with mental health which is, after all, only one part of their lives and, at the same time, a refusal to hide the reality of the experience.
  • It is important to offer support, particularly in the early stages of a person’s involvement in the project. Contacting people when they miss a session, providing encouragement and clearly stating our wish that there is full attendance seem to have been crucial.
  • We have learned that is important to be flexible to allow people to take time out from the courses. This needs to be recognised and accepted.

“There is increasing evidence for the positive impact of the arts on health in general and on mental health in particular. Participation in arts activities has been shown to promote individual and community well-being and cohesion.” (Department of Health, New Horizons, 2009)