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At Sussex Recovery College, arts-based courses are boosting students’ creativity and self-esteem. Kate Davey reports on this promising new model.

Photo of stencil saying One day at a time

Ella Bryant

Make Your Mark, the arts and health programme for Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, aims to use the arts to make a difference to individuals, groups and communities, by integrating creativity into the fabric of healthcare and creating new possibilities for health and wellbeing within our communities.

Since its inception last year it has delivered and supported a range of arts-based participatory learning opportunities for service users, staff and members of the public.

One student remarked that having been unable to leave the house or engage socially in any meaningful way for years, he is now having fun again and looked forward to his art class every week

The programme was shaped by a series of consultation events held in arts venues across Sussex involving over 150 people. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive and we learnt that our programme needed to be participatory and collaborative, community-based, able to increase access to a range of artforms and to deliver personal, interpersonal, social and community outcomes.

Last year it received a £60,000 funding boost from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) through Heads On (Sussex Partnership’s charity) to deliver and evaluate seven specialist arts courses in association with Sussex Recovery College.

Recovery college model

Recovery colleges are characterised by free attendance, co-production and learning among peers. They offer educational opportunities to support people in their journey to recovery.

The courses are co-designed and co-delivered by professionals and peer trainers (people with experience of mental health challenges) in a non-stigmatising college environment. They are still in their infancy in the UK and evaluation evidence is limited. However, a pilot study revealed that those who attended more than 70% of their scheduled sessions showed a significant reduction in use of community mental health services.

The Make Your Mark arts courses were designed to increase people’s access to participatory arts opportunities and, through this, help increase knowledge and skills, support creativity and promote self-esteem and confidence.

The eight-week courses took place between May and July and spanned artforms including music, visual arts, theatre, puppetry and film-making. They were co-produced and delivered by professional artists experienced in participatory practice recruited through an open call-out and peer trainers.

Each course focused on approaching recovery through creativity and course titles reflected this, such as Recovery and Self-Discovery through Arts and Food, Creative Music Making and Mindful Drama and Storytelling for Supportive Recovery.

The courses were delivered in cultural venues across Sussex as a way of building students’ confidence and their sense of belonging within arts settings. Our cultural partners included the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, the Royal Pavilion and Museums in Brighton and Hove, Hawth in Crawley, Worthing Museum, Clair Hall in Haywards Heath and Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham.

Explore and test

The PHF grant we received was specifically an ‘explore and test’ grant. It includes a significant longitudinal evaluation strand, allowing us to explore the impact that these arts-based Recovery College courses can play in increasing students participation in the arts and reducing their use of mental health services.

Photo of typewriter, typing: "I am enough. Enough."Photo: Ella Byrant

Our research assistant will use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. We will be tapping into Sussex Recovery College’s existing evaluation process, but also using our own methods including a focus group with the professional artists (experts by training) and the peer trainers (experts by experience), as well as semi-structured interviews with a selection of students at three, six and nine months. Our evaluation will be supported by Canterbury Christ Church University.

Early feedback

Although we are only in the initial stages of collecting data, Make Your Mark staff have attended at least one session of each course, enabling us to gather some early-stage feedback. This has shown that students have been overwhelmingly positive about the value of the courses as well as the evaluation process itself.

One student remarked that having been unable to leave the house or engage socially in any meaningful way for years, he is now having fun again and looked forward to his art class every week. It is also apparent that a developing interest in the arts is emerging among the participants. For example, a group of students from the Creative Music Making course have decided that they will meet regularly for jamming sessions now that the course has finished.

As well as positive feedback from the individuals taking part, feedback from people who know the students has also been equally positive, with one friend of a student saying that she has never seen her friend so positive, relaxed and engaged before. Finally, a peer trainer who recognised a student from previous courses remarked on the noticeable change in the student’s positivity and engagement.

Future collaborations

Now the courses have come to an end, we will collate the data collected and undertake the evaluation phase. We plan to report our findings next year. Our hope is that the learning from this project can feed into future collaborations between Make Your Mark and Sussex Recovery College, providing more people with mental health challenges with high-quality opportunities to access the arts as part of their recovery journey.

Kate Davey is Arts Project Coordinator at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. With assistance from Joanna Stevens, Lead for Arts and Health, and Catherine Butterfield, Research Assistant.

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