Dr Aylwyn Walsh leads on innovative project supporting mental health in Leeds

Dr Aylwyn Walsh leads on innovative project supporting mental health in Leeds

Dr Aylwyn Walsh, Programme Leader for MA Applied Theatre and Intervention, has recently been involved in the work produced for Converge Leeds, a programme developed as part of a project at the University of Leeds which aims to support people suffering from mental health difficulties.

The programme offers short, non-assessed university-based courses to local people with mental health difficulties. Converge courses are provided free of charge and focus on education and building on/learning new skills.

The Converge project at the University of Leeds started last year as an funded pilot, in partnership with Leeds Mind and three other higher education institutions in Leeds; Leeds College of Music, Leeds Beckett and Leeds Trinity University. In the first year, Converge recruited 19 participants, and out of that, a core group has gone on to form a company meeting regularly throughout 2017. This group has presented performances at Leeds University, the White Cloth Gallery and has a performance planned for the Summer of 2018.

This year’s Converge programme began again at the University at the beginning of the month with an ‘Introduction to Drama’ led by Dr Walsh, and student interns from the MA in Applied Theatre and Intervention.

Dr Aylwyn Walsh said: “The project is a wonderful opportunity for Leeds students to work in a reflexive environment with community members. It has revitalised socially engaged practice in our school and has afforded opportunities for people to perform who would never otherwise get on stage.”

While this unique model is designed for those people using mental health services in Leeds, its focus is not directly on mental health. This engagement with excellence in teaching, quality of materials, and experience enables people who may not usually participate to learn in the context of an institute of higher learning. Throughout the 8 week course, what is focused upon is collaboration, developing creativity and learning skills related to theatre and performance. All this is supported by students studying on the MA programme learning about the impact of the arts in the community.

Converge students say the project has given them confidence, the opportunity to set goals, rekindle dreams and take on responsibility. They commented:

“Converge has helped me with confidence and I feel more like I believe in myself. Sometimes if you hear something like that you think ‘Well that can’t be true’ – but it’s true because even though there’s a perceived fine line between confidence and arrogance, I do believe in myself.”

“It’s been safe and challenging at the same time; largely because of generosity and acceptance of the rest of the group. This helped me feel like things I might normally be too intimidated to try have been within my grasp.”

The Converge model was developed from a pilot at York St John almost a decade ago, and there, it has become well known for its innovative model – a convergence of needs, desires and outcomes that are about inclusive pedagogy. The director of Converge York, Dr Nick Rowe has recently been awarded an MBE for his services to those with mental health needs. His mission, in developing this portfolio, is twofold. Firstly, the need for recovery-orientated non-stigmatising educational opportunities for people experiencing mental ill health. Secondly, to provide opportunities for university students to learn through working alongside people who use mental health services.