A year of expanding and sharing knowledge

The Synergi Collaborative Centre was established in February 2017, and formally launched in November 2017, with a host of creative and artistic presentations – from poetry to dramatic theatre – to capture the lived experience of people living with severe mental illness. The focus was especially on people from ethnic minority groups, and of diverse cultural heritage, and those facing multiple disadvantages.

As well as seeking to gather and marshal the most robust scientific evidence, at the heart of Synergi’s campaign is putting their stories centre stage.

Since we launched, we have noticed how poor the levels of understanding are on this topic. Not many people, be they the public, patients or professionals, are aware of the substantial body of evidence that exists.

So, we began by updating a number of systematic reviews on ethnic inequalities in the incidence of severe mental illness, and pathways to care. We plan to undertake more in-depth qualitative research to hear those hidden voices; those people considered to be exceptional and left out of mainstream opinion.

Synergi will also undertake selected secondary analyses of existing data and collect new statistics. To inform our future research directions, we launched a national public survey asking the public, including carers and people with lived experience, what priorities they recommend for our work programme.

Underpinning our research are a set of robust and innovative methods, including Participatory Action Research where people who are usually the ‘objects’ of study become co-researchers, expanding and democratising who produces new knowledge. In this case, ethnic minority people with lived experience of severe mental illness will be recruited and trained as co-researchers, collaborating in all phases of the research and beyond.

During the year we supported and informed a wider debate on exploring and understanding the forms that societal, institutional and interpersonal racism takes, and how societal inequalities enter care experiences. In particular, we are interested in how ethnic inequalities are also shaped by other sources of inequality and disadvantage, such as gender, social class and age.

To further not only our but the public’s understanding of lived experience narratives, we launched the Synergi Photovoice Project. In collaboration with organisations, including LMCP, African and Caribbean Mental Health Services, the Psychosis Therapy Project at Islington Mind and Mind in Haringey, we facilitated several photovoice workshops with service users and carers to share their stories via photographs taken with disposable cameras. They also had the space to develop their own narratives to illustrate either an individual or a set of photographs.

Internal and private exhibitions were co-curated and hosted with for the participants to see their work in a different context and to prepare them, if they were willing, to be part of public exhibitions. They shared stories of family, recovery, resilience, medication, health and how their care experiences might be improved. In short, what mattered to them.

The result was two public exhibitions, hosted in London at Bush Theatre and Manchester at Z-Arts Centre, featuring participants and participating organisations as speakers, with creative performances by poets with direct or indirect lived experience, Dean Atta and Keisha Thompson.

The feedback back was positive, from both those who attended and those who participated. Recently, the project received a Queen Mary University of London Community Engagement Award 2018 which is shared among all of those involved.

Public engagement through digital platforms has also been a focus for Synergi, and is continuing. We launched #SynergiStories, where people with lived experience share their stories as podcasts or blog posts. This will be expanded in 2019 to be a micro site that will provide a wider platform with multiple ways of sharing narratives.

Another digital development is Synergi Talks, filmed interviews and now podcasts, where in conversation-style interviews or discussions with a diversity of contributors – from psychologists, policymakers, trainers, to people with lived experience and carers – talk about their relationship to, and experience of mental illness, ethnic inequalities and multiple disadvantages. The focus is future facing and on what works or needs to change.

Synergi will continue to use and find ways to innovate through the arts and theatre as a form of creative dialogue to generate, provoke and influence debate. This is a valuable way of representing stories which are otherwise neglected, and communicate what is at stake in a way that reaches beyond divides and disagreements.

Creative arts and theatre can also be used to explore and research the processes and mechanisms by which inequalities are generated and sustained. Cultural and social assets are also a form of support and help that are under-recognised, yet appealing and used by many who feel unable to seek help from the formal sector of health care.

We have also developed a hub called Creative Spaces to help open debate and discussion with colleagues in specific places facing multiple disadvantage, with documented evidence of ethnic inequalities. It provides an opportunity to see how a place-based and health systems approach can work for them.

Creative Spaces offers a form of critical discussion, involving commissioners, providers, clinicians, service users, the public and policymakers, as well as leading agencies for mental health care. This includes those seeking both to prevent mental illness and to promote recovery.

It aims to provide and build relational trust and security, through collaborative leadership. This fosters people to take a place-based systems approach to the development of health and social services. One that will be sustainable and improve the quality of care, as well as empower local agencies in formal and non-formal sectors of health )from schools, universities to criminal justice agencies and local government) to move together towards shared aims.

We hope you will join us on the next stage of this important journey.