In April 2019, Comic Relief launched Bridging the Gaps: Strengthening mental health support for children and young people – a programme designed to support children and young people in the UK and in five lower-middle income countries internationally with their mental health problems.
Behind the call was months of planning, consulting and meeting with people working in the sector. A key part of this was bringing together a group of people who have experience of mental health to play a decision-making role in the programme. The people selected to take part had either experienced a mental health problem themselves or supported others who have. We called the group the Mental Health Collective.
Below are three separate blogs written by three individuals who participated in this process, providing their perspectives and own personal reflections;
Dean Johnstone CEO and Founder, Minds Ahead - UK
For the last year, I have had the privilege to be part of the Mental Health Collective at Comic Relief. This diverse group included Comic Relief staff alongside those with lived experience of mental health needs and those working to address mental health challenges across the UK and around the world.
The Mental Health Collective was tasked with finalising the £5 million funding call under their mental health strand and subsequently shortlisting and deciding on the allocation of funds to the applicants. This was the first time that Comic Relief had opened itself to this way of working. I summarise my main reflections being involved in this collective.
Comic Relief has a strong desire to develop a new model in their decision making and funding allocation. Their drive to do things differently was clear. The funding call itself was asking for new models to address mental health challenges and, by working together with members from across the globe, brought new perspectives and insights to common problems. It is great to see an established organisation working in this way, as more innovation is needed when it comes to mental health support.
The collective worked as a partnership. We had diverse backgrounds and experiences, yet we had to work as a collective and make joint decisions. The funding call itself also demanded that applicants were working in partnership to deliver mental health support. As a founder of a small and new social enterprise, I know the potential of working in partnership to generate powerful new solutions and get things happening quicker and bigger than are otherwise possible. It was great to see new partnerships being formed as well as established partnerships strengthened as part of this funding call.
We had to make tough decisions. In setting the criteria for the funding, shortlisting and final allocation of funds, we were constantly conscious that we were excluding highly effective and much needed projects and initiatives. We had 390 applications for funding and in the end awarded 18. We all had respect for their hard work.
Likewise, we had to let go of our pet projects and respect the overall aim of the funding call. I leave with respect for the great work being done to address mental health in our communities, as well as the near impossible task that organisations like Comic Relief contribute to.
I hope that the funding decisions we made make a real difference on the mental health of young people across the UK and abroad, and the partnerships that now exist will sustain for longer term impact.
Elizabeth Kasujja Co-founder and CEO, Clear Yo Mind - Uganda
Mental Health: The Lived Experience
December 2016 was cruelly cold for me and relentlessly dark as I waited out what started as a feeling of deep sorrow that lingered much longer than it ought to have. I did my best to keep my soul numbing bout of depression invisible to the world as I wallowed in a labyrinth dark with scattered thoughts and solitude. This left me feeling drained and consumed by the unending nothingness!
However, this experience was a part of my journey to a place of transforming the lives of people living with mental health conditions in my part of the world. I co-founded Clear Yo Mind which contributes to the eradication of stigma surrounding mental health through awareness and platforms for people to access professional mental health care when they need it. It also led me to Comic Relief, where I have worked with wonderful people, co-created amazing experiences and have contributed to the mental health space through my membership to the Mental Health Collective.
About the Comic Relief Mental Health Collective
The Comic Relief Mental Health Collective, through engagement, carefully considers the experiences of people living with mental health issues and the perspectives of people working in organisations for mental health to have a better understanding of what really works in meeting the needs and overcoming the challenges of the mental health sector.
Over the last few months, I have worked together with other members of the Collective to make funding recommendations for the Global Mental Health Matters programme. The role of the Mental Health Collective is to provide advice and guidance on the Global Mental Health programme, particularly focusing on informing the Global Mental Health funding opportunity, making decisions on application shortlisting and assessing, providing recommendations on projects for funding to the Social Impact Committee, making decisions around the learning for the funding opportunity, as well as co-designing future funding initiatives.
In my experience with the Mental Health Collective, some of the lessons that stand out most for me include the significance of context in mental health matters due to differences such as culture, levels of awareness and government policy among others. This means that some propositions such as socio-economic support and benefits for people with mental health issues could be an option in developed countries but might not be quite feasible in the least developed countries, due to scarcity of resources such as money and relevantly qualified human resource.
Secondly, I have also learnt that the alternative narrative is very important in communication spaces because it helps to refine ideas into sustainable and robust solutions for several stakeholders on a given matter. It is a part of clear communication that we should encourage as it can lead to the adoption of new attitudes, methods and approaches to problem solving. This is because it usually involves a fearless critique of the status quo plus an ambitious drive to make new efforts where previous attempts have failed or only partially succeeded.
Last but not least, I have learned that wonderful teams make for great working experiences and I am eternally grateful for having had the opportunity to contribute my expertise in the mental health sector to the work of the Mental Health Collective.
Golsana Begum Investment Partner and Bridging The Gaps programme lead, Comic Relief - UK
“Why is it important to include people with lived experience to help make decisions?”, I hear you ask…
Well, it’s easy for us (Comic Relief) to think we have the answers and know what is needed to make change as we have our knowledge, expertise and because we have consulted with people working on the issues when we develop programmes. But we also know (and value) people who have experienced these issues themselves personally. They understand the different treatment options available, what works for them, what doesn’t work and why, and the barriers to accessing services. Put simply, the people with the solutions will be those that have intimate experience of the issue in the first place.
Working with the collective
Joining us on our journey to ‘bridge the gaps’ in mental health services are the Mental Health Collective; a group of truly inspiring, thought-provoking and insightful individuals. When they joined, we outlined the programme priorities and consulted with the group for their input. They reviewed the funding opportunity, offered valuable insights, challenged us and raised issues that have implications for our funding strategy beyond Bridging the Gaps.
We received over 390 applications to Bridging the Gaps when we launched in April 2019. The collective was instrumental in reviewing the applications, shortlisting them and ultimately making decisions on the projects that will receive our funding.
The group had to make some tough decisions as we had limited resources and could only make a small number of grants. It can be an incredibly frustrating and emotionally draining process to see so many great project proposals, and the potential impact they could have, but be unable to take them forward. The collective took up this task with compassion and empathy. For me, as programme lead, being able to talk the applications through and having their voices in the mix was priceless. The process felt really robust and I believe the decisions we made were stronger as a result of having different perspectives in the room.
What we learnt
It was a learning process for us all, especially me. There are many reasons why working with the collective was not only beneficial to my work but also enjoyable to be part of. It gave me the opportunity to ask questions, confirm my beliefs, dispel some of the myths I carry and share my knowledge. I learned from the group, and hopefully they learned a thing or two about grant making too.
My key takeaway from the process is that people who have intimate knowledge of the issues bring a fundamentally important perspective that needs to be included in developing and delivering programmes.