Mental health: training staff and users together – Kelvin Barton

Kelvin Barton is used to being different. For a start an impressive proportion of the 33-year-old’s body is covered in an array of colourful and intricate tattoos, as well as eight piercings. Becoming a social worker was not what Barton initially planned to do with his life. After leaving home at 16 he was homeless for a year before training as a tattooist and body piercer. But he doesn’t see the leap from body artist to social worker seven years ago as a huge one: “Bedside manner in body art is crucial and I had a lot of transferable skills in keeping people calm.”

These have proved invaluable in his role as mental health services co-ordinator for Providence Row Housing Association. And it is here that he has shown he can make a difference by introducing innovative training for staff and service users alike.

Based on Bethnal Green Road in East London, the housing association provides accommodation ranging from hostels to supported housing for 600 people who are homeless or likely to be homeless in London. As part of its Grounded Initiative the housing association has been piloting mental health training for services users and staff to attend together.

The idea stemmed from a request from a resident for awareness training in mental health. As it is Barton’s responsibility to source training for his colleagues, he decided to extend it to any interested service users. “It hadn’t been done here before and I thought it made absolute sense to train people together,” he says.

An added impetus for the joint training was a mental health workshop run two years ago for all the housing association’s staff – not just those in front-line positions – that was well received. One outcome Barton wants to achieve via the joint training is a reduction in the stigma associated with mental health issues and a better sense of integration among clients and staff. “I want to reduce the ‘them and us’ mentality. We are all working and living in this environment and the better we can understand each other and what we are trying to achieve the nicer the place will be.”

Barton decided to use trainer Iain Bourne because he had been trained by him before. “Iain was the first person I thought of because his style is fantastic and very engaging. I wanted to find a trainer who had a flair for training contrasting people, who didn’t just have a flipchart that said, ‘this is the diagnosis’. That’s fine if you’re studying for a doctorate but I wanted it to be more interactive. So people thought outside of the diagnosis – they saw the person holistically.”

The first training session took place in February and was on mental health awareness and covered legislation, how the system operates and people’s experiences of being in the system. Of the 18 people who voluntarily attended, half were service users and half were staff from different departments in the housing association.

In July, a second workshop was run on depression and anxiety, and again 18 people attended, split equally between professionals and users. And last month, a third session on anger and frustration was run with a focus on how these feelings manifest themselves both in a working environment for the professionals and a home environment for the residents and service users.

Ensuring that clients were not treated differently from staff during training was essential, Barton says. Each have experience that the others can learn from and training together helped people bond, he adds.

One of the housing association’s support workers who attended the depression and anxiety workshop says it was a fantastic idea to train staff and clients together:

“This was the best part of the training for me for many reasons. First, it seemed useful for clients suffering from these problems as it gave them helpful information and advice. Second, clients’ accounts and stories in the subject enriched the overall training for staff as these were real-life examples.”

He adds that completing the training with his client strengthened their working relationship because they experienced it as “equal members”.


Tips for training services users and professionals together on mental health issues.

● Provide interactive training to engage people and use different techniques for different people.
● As a trainer use examples from your own professional experience.
● Acknowledge that professionals work in different ways and try to incorporate something for everyone into the session.
● Acknowledge those you are training have a wealth of knowledge, be it professional or as service user, so do not patronise them.
● Do not make assumptions about what a mental health diagnosis tells you about a person as circumstances can vary.
● Support the person rather than their mental health diagnosis.

Contact the author
Anabel Unity Sale

This article appeared in the 27 September issue under the headline “In it together”

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