Chris O’Sullivan from the Mental Health Foundation gives us his personal reflections from the UK’s first mental health Innovation Lab.
Today I’ve had the massive privilege of working at an Innovation Lab in central London, with fifty or so of the most innovative people I’ ve met in years. The chance to combine innovation, technology, and mental health is never something I can resist. The opportunity to work with a mix of outstanding, articulate, exceptional and gifted young people and a range of tech people, problem solvers, and facilitators was proper humbling.
This story starts back in April, when I facilitated a workshop day to consider ways in which young people and technology people might be brought together to co-produce a set of prototype ideas for mental health and technology assets. Today was the first of two innovation labs which will take forward first the thinking, and then the development of proto-projects that three of the leading funders in the UK will consider for further support.
Today’s work was the idea generation, bringing together a group of people to create ideas. Through a process of creation of character vignettes, and then story creation around them via discussing problems they might face and brainstorming solutions some 190 ideas were generated, and triaged. These ranged from apps, to websites, to service models…and lots of things that so far aren’t even on the concept map.
I had three roles today…first was my familiar work role of giving a ‘stimulus presentation’ to fire up passion, then MCing feedback sessions. The second was offering input across the innovation groups. The final was as official photographer, as part of the social reporting team.
The stimulus bit went quite well…I wanted to try and bring together innovation, mental health and technology. I spoke about the value of failure and learning from mistakes in innovation, reflected against the often caustic role of perceived personal failure in the experience of poor mental health. I hoped that the young people would find the confidence to advance ideas, and that the pros and geeks would get a sense of what it is like to invest a fragile sense of self worth when you are out on an isthmus of land over a deep chasm of self doubt. It helps of course that i’ve been there.
I also spoke a bit about the narrow roads thing. That is to say that when I arrived yesterday I noticed how small and narrow the roads in my hometown are, roads that when I was a child seemed like motorways. This is of course because my worldview has gotten far broader. I realised today that it is ten years since bullying at school nearly cost me my life (by suicide), and that actually, all that time on, I can now look the town in the face without feeling small.
One of the things that helped me place in context the bullying that loomed so large over my identity as a teenager was the fact that when I got to University, and got online, I received and gave peer support to others struggling with mental ill health, and found people ‘like me’ all over the world. The web draws together communities of interest like nothing else. Today we had a whole room of people brought together by a common interest in three themes…all alike but different. To say it was a room of very different folk who were people like us was an understatement. The team today created a space where validation was a given, and therefore the barriers were down and exchange was free.
My final point was on identity…and the fact that we all now have portfolio identities. It’s rare indeed now that anyone born after about 1975 has a single role in the domains of home and work. Many of us move seamlessly between online and offline, and between the professional role that pays us a wage, and other, complementary professional roles which involve voluntary work, innovation, and collaboration. One of my roles there today was as photographer, another was as a well kent twitter mental health hack, another was to highlight the way in which I can use my lived experience of mental ill health and recovery to highlight points of discussion. Yet I was there as a representative of the organisation I work for, with that that first, and all the others also in play. Somebody said the other day to me ‘in the game, but thinking outside it’, and that seems like an interesting framework.
People seemed moved by what I said, and the way that I said it. Which is lovely to hear. But I also discussed with people for the first time ever that sometimes NOT having lived experience of mental ill health can seem like a disadvantage in a group of those who do. Which of course is equally true. That said, I think we all establish a set of identities, a personal brand as it were that has different hues and emphases according to situation. We are all products of our experience, our endowment, and our environments. Accessing and then utilising these experiences was what today was about, and it worked so well.
The other interesting thing today was the organised social reporting function. For years I have loved the European science/policy conference role of workshop chair and rapporteur, where you use the workshop discussion to formulate a summary to feedback. I am a really passionate tweeter at events, because i think there are ways to share what happens in the room with those outside. It reduces inequity, fosters interest, and breaks down perception of elitism. Today we had a team tweeting, photographing, videoing and live blogging the event at #innovlabs and online. We were talking about technology, using technology, and dipping between online and offline like otters in the river.
I’m so full of energy about this now. I love events, and designing processes to bring folk together, but this is to make a thing or things, and that is even more exciting I find. Working with such brilliant young people is also fantastic. Many of those stars of tomorrow, might yesterday or even today felt like nothing…when really they were more than just quite something. It has reconfirmed to me that if you get the process right, and the people mix right, unconferences and co-production events always surprise and delight. But…as someone else said to me the other day ‘everyone can crack an egg but few can make a good omelette, even if they think they can’ This just shows how hard pulling off the ‘swan effect’ of grace and beauty is…planning, thought, and brilliant facilitation by the team.
Alain de Botton said something on Twitter the other day…about announcing something to the world before you had done it so as to concentrate the mind on achieving it. Well my New Years Resolution is to do much more of this type of tangible coproduction of activities, and much less sitting in meetings thinking of what people might want. You thought I was going to tell you something profound there…well..I know what I want to do….but the it wouldn’t be a surprise…
Chris is Senior Project Manager at the Mental Health Foundation