Eureka moment proves a winner

Service users in Kent are helping student practitioners deepen their understanding of mental health problems. Anabel Unity Sale reports on the Buddy Scheme, a Community Care Award winner last year.

An idea hastily scrawled on the back of a cigarette box in a Chinese restaurant is transforming the lives of mental health service users in Gillingham, Kent.

One afternoon in May 2004, Belinda Garnett, a senior nurse practitioner at the West Kent NHS and Social Care Trust, had a eureka moment. She had just been to a conference where service users had been talking of their wish for mental health practitioners to have a better understanding of what it is like to have a mental health disorder. By the same token, she wanted student practitioners to broaden their knowledge of users’ experiences, so, she thought, why not directly involve mental health users in the training of practitioners?

Before she forgot her idea she wrote it down on the cigarette packet, and the seeds of the Buddy Scheme were sown. Her team manager, two service users and the practice placement facilitator at Christchurch University in nearby Canterbury were all in favour and a pilot began in December 2004.

Under the scheme, each student mental health nurse on placement with Gillingham community mental health team is linked up with a client who acts as a buddy. This approach is similar, says Garnett, to the one followed by Alcoholics Anonymous, where each individual is allocated a mentor who has already been through the system.

So far, 10 mental health service users have acted as buddies to eight student mental health nurses. Each placement lasts for one week, two weeks, six weeks or 12 weeks and during this period the practitioner meets the user for an hour a week. Among the topics they discuss are the service user’s experience of mental health, medication, how psychosocial issues impact mental health and the importance of communication and listening skills.

Initially, clients and practitioners were nervous about the scheme but, by working together, they overcame their apprehension. Garnett says the benefits to students are clear: “The scheme has given students awareness and insight into mental illness from a service user’s perspective and they and the clients appreciate the importance of the therapeutic relationship and good communication.”

Practitioners often discover for the first time what it is like to have a mental illness.

The feedback from clients has also been positive. “Service users feel respected and valued because they are empowered to speak openly and freely about their experiences of mental illness,” says Garnett.

She believes that the project has been successful because it uses an inclusive approach: “The scheme is about finding out how the condition makes the person feel and how can we improve care.”

In coming up with the initiative, Garnett drew on her personal experience of training as a registered mental nurse in the late 1990s. Her work placement in a hospital had “left a lot to be desired” and her university tutor told her to make sure she changed things when she had the power to do so.

Winning the Community Care award for mental health means that clients who act as buddies will now be paid for their time and travel. Also, Gillingham community mental health team will be able to finance the sharing of information about the scheme to other professionals and users.

When members of the project attended the Community Care awards ceremony last December, a service user came with them who hadn’t been to London since he became mentally ill 22 years ago. For Garnett this sums up how a simple idea can change users’ lives dramatically.


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