Friday 30 April 2021

Can putting distinct services under one roof prevent mental illness? We (cold) called in the experts to find out

In today's Fuse blog post, Fiona Duncan, Postdoctoral Research Associate from Durham University, writes about co-locating services to improve mental health and the perils of pulling together an expert panel during a pandemic. 

'Cold Calling' by Darren Tennant
This past year has been tough for many of us.  Financial worries, feeling socially isolated and lonely, facing unemployment, and missing opportunities for physical activity are just some of the things that have impacted on mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic.  This means that finding ways to improve mental health and prevent mental illness in our communities is more important than ever.

Over the past few months, I have been working on a NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) project which aims to investigate how “co-located” services based in the community can be used to promote wellbeing.  A co-located service is where two or more distinct services are in the same physical space and the staff of each service interact with each other, either formally or informally.  Co-located services are often found within traditional health services like GP practices when welfare, legal and/or mental health services are delivered in the same building.  The project will investigate the benefits and disadvantages of co-locating in community spaces, rather than within traditional health services.  For example, a debt service within a faith institution, a welfare service in a library, a mental health support service in a sports centre, or a money advice service within a foodbank.  We are interested in finding out exactly how co-location helps to improve mental health and whether they work for all people in all circumstances, or just some people in certain circumstances. For instance, does co-location increase access, reduce stigma, or encourage a higher quality of service by allowing professionals to work together better?

To start this research, I was given the task of setting up and facilitating an expert panel workshop. The idea being that if we want to gain a deep understanding of how co-located services may or may not work then we should ask the people who actually design, fund or deliver these services in the real world.  We hoped that this workshop would consist of service practitioners, policy-makers, and commissioners at local authorities and people who work for organisations that provide funding for community projects. 

My first challenge in setting up the workshop was getting people to take part.  Where was I going to find these experts and would they be able to give up two hours of their time in the middle of a pandemic?  I was planning on the workshop being small (5-8 people) but, in the circumstances, I realised that I was probably going to have to ask a lot of experts to even hit this target!

I used a variety of approaches to find my experts.  I asked members of the wider research team to email any suitable contacts, we approached the other NIHR Schools and we advertised the study on twitter.  I also personally contacted some people that had participated in a previous research project and my colleague, Dr Emily Oliver from Durham University, mentioned the workshop during a webinar at which she was presenting. Through these methods, three experts signed up.  To get a few more people, I then started to ‘cold call’ potentially suitable people and organisations, including almost 40 local authority Directors of Public Health in England.  Despite the pressures that this group of people are currently under due to COVID, this ‘cold calling’ led to three more people agreeing to attend.

Having six people confirmed still felt like a very precarious position to be in, and it turned out that I was right to be nervous, as one person unfortunately had to pull out on the morning of the workshop. However, luck was on my side as at the last minute another expert who had found out about the workshop from a colleague at one of the organisations I had contacted, asked if they could come along.  Panic over!

The nerves kicked in again at the start of the event, as I had never facilitated a Zoom workshop before and it was clear that some of our experts were feeling nervous too.  This could have been a problem as we wanted them to freely and openly talk about the benefits and disadvantages of co-located services.  Luckily, Gillian Samuel, a member of our research team from the McPin Foundation, was able to facilitate a brilliant icebreaker exercise.  She asked everyone to talk about something that we all had in common, specifically, what we are looking forward to most when lockdown ends?  Everyone had some great answers to this question (the re-opening of Selfridges was my personal favourite answer) and this made for a more relaxed atmosphere.

This almost certainly helped the workshop discussions flow as our experts provided rich and detailed information about co-located services.  However, in some ways the workshop did not go as I had expected.  I thought the experts would talk about the benefits of their co-located services and the mechanisms involved in how these services work. I had prepared a long list of questions to prompt such a conversation, but it soon became clear that the panel had a lot to say about how co-located services quite often don’t work.  They were all clearly very passionate about what they do but expressed frustrations surrounding service delivery.  One theme to emerge was that co-located services are dependent on different types of professional working together, but the reality is that they often don’t communicate well with each other at all.

Although I wasn’t expecting the panel to say these things, I’m glad they did.  It helps us to understand how co-located services are working, or not, and is very important if we want to improve services and therefore improve mental health and prevent mental illness in our communities. This information will also be very helpful in the next part of our study where we will be interviewing people who work at and use selected co-located services.

Fiona works on the NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) Public mental health programme through Fuse's membership of the School.


1. 'Cold Calling' by Darren Tennant via, copyright © 2014 (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)):

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