Black Men and Digital Mental Health Support: Collective Power Award

| Mel Parks

We are delighted to be involved again this year with the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance’s (CHWA) annual awards which focus on collective power (partnership and co-production), practitioner support and climate.

We are partnering with CHWA on their Collective Power Award. This award aims to recognise an inspiring project, consortium, collective or movement of people in which meaningful partnership and co-production has improved the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities through culture and creativity. CHWA were positively overwhelmed by the quality of applications. Each application told another story of the incredible work happening all over the country and the amazing collaborative and creative spirit of people responding to individual, local and global challenges. We loved the different interpretations of “collective power” and we were blown away by how people and organisations worked together to respond and adapt during the pandemic. 

In order to celebrate this work, we are running a blog series on each of the projects shortlisted for the Collective Power Award. This blog features Kooth, a digital mental health service providing online support from self-help to peer support and structured counselling. They worked with two grassroots organisations – BLKOUT and Cultures CIC to understand black men’s relationship with their mental health and the challenges they face in accessing effective services.

We invited Kooth staff who were closely involved with the project to answer the questions below and from these, it is clear that this was both a personal and professional development opportunity.  The project had a very significant impact and has been instrumental in shaping our understanding of the voices of the men who participated so openly and generously. Their ideas have also significantly influenced the sense of priority in doing more collaborative work and perhaps, even as important, have set objectives for Kooth in its development as an organisation committed to anti-racism.  

What has been your favourite thing about the project?

I really appreciated contributing to such a meaningful project, so there are many moments that I could call my favourite. But listening to the men from Blackout and Cultures CIC share their experiences and perspective on mental health support was such an important learning experience. In particular, hearing what an ideal package of mental health support would look like for them and the importance of representation across everything our service does. From the first thing they ever see, for example, a poster or digital ad all the way to the content they see on the site, discussions that are happening and the practitioners they chat with.

And then it was also brilliant to utilise the feedback and insights from workshops to begin to create outcomes guided by their voices, that will eventually be embedded within Kooth to increase access of support. I really valued working with our Lived Experience Coordinator, who helped steer the direction of the project by providing support and advice, and held the company accountable to ensure that this work continues and develops.

Working with a lived experience representative shifted the mindsets of colleagues from other teams as they experienced a different way of working and started to understand the power of this approach. It gave the team a chance to learn and build our confidence in how we work with lived experience representatives in the future – and we used this learning to outline some guidance on how to work with adults with lived experience in Kooth’s People’s Voice toolkit so other colleagues can use this learning too.

Have you made and learnt from any mistakes along the way?

One of our team members said the mistake they made initially was viewing things from their frame of reference, “I made a lot of assumptions that the groups would know what was meant by things like community support which is a big part of our service. However, I learned that I need to adapt my frame of reference to the setting I’m in”. Spelling out what community support really looks like using our service seemed to engage the group and make them curious about the kind of shared experiences they might encounter using our service.

Lesson 1: Have courage

Don’t let the fear of doing or saying something in the wrong way hold you back! Especially when you’re co-creating with a group of people you don’t usually interact with (personally or professionally). Use the wisdom of partner organisations to co-produce the interactions you want to have with people. And remember people are always gracious in sharing their insights and experiences when you’re honest about your own learning journey – your vulnerability helps others to see you as a fellow human who might make mistakes.

One team member said, “I think the fear of making mistakes itself was often a blocker of the project. As an Anti-Discrimination group, there was a shared awareness of the importance of the work we are doing. This often left some members of the group anxious to contribute, for fear of saying the wrong thing or contributing something that might not add value.”

Our Lived Experience Representative helped us to ease this by facilitating open discussions around concerns, which helped to reduce the fear of contributing within the group. Equally, when we were asked to take areas of focus into separate work streams, for example, data analysis of survey/ workshop feedback; working with other members of the group helped to develop relationships, which encouraged confidence to contribute to the wider group.

Lesson 2: Meaningful, safe conversations

Conversations need to be meaningful AND SAFE. We learned that men from ethnic minority backgrounds feel safer when interactions are facilitated by professionals from ethnic minority backgrounds too. Because it means they do not have to explain themselves, they do not have to be self-conscious about what they are saying and how they are saying this and they can be honest about their experiences. We respected this by ensuring the facilitators from Kooth were from an ethnic minority background.

Lesson 3: Provide safeguarding support

Empower partner organisations to provide safeguarding support. We asked partner organisations to ensure safeguarding support was provided for the men during any workshops and afterwards. We learned:

a) this positively challenged organisations working with people on the margins to consider their safety given the nature of this work; and

b) it made the people sharing the insights feel safe and valued because it indicated that the organisation asking the questions (Kooth plc) understands the sensitive nature of the interactions and has considered their safety. It helped to mitigate against the feeling that the interactions were extractive.

Lesson 4: Staff support

Support your staff on the learning journey because it will be emotional. This kind of work often made the delivery team look at “myself in the mirror”. Learning about the experiences men from ethnic minority backgrounds had with mental health services was deeply uncomfortable and upsetting for team members. One team member said, “there were times when I personally walked away from the laptop or the workshop rooms and gave myself the space to cry afterwards. As a woman from an ethnic minority background I had expected the emotional journey to be hard and complex – and there were times when I felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders as the lead facilitator. I could empathise with the men’s confusion, anger and pain. But I also felt hope that a better experience was possible because there were so many ideas from the men and I knew Kooth was committed to making these ideas happen.”

To ensure staff were being supported in this journey, we had a Clinical Lead (a team member) from Kooth lead on debriefing sessions to help surface these feelings and reflect on the journey. This helped to create a safe space for team members and reconnect us with the real purpose behind the work: equity of outcomes for these men.

Lesson 5: Respect and empowerment

Lead with respect and empowerment. We wanted to work with partner organisations to help us co-design and co-deliver this work. But our search for partner organisations working with men from ethnic minority backgrounds was not easy. Many organisations closed their doors to partnering with us because they had found previous ‘consultative’ experiences extractive and patronising. They were angry about these experiences. We wanted to change this experience for our partner organisations. We asked upfront: how can we work with you in a respectful and empowering way? And we used the responses to shape our working relationship with them.

Has anything surprised you during the project?

Looking back, we were so caught up initially about the men’s ‘marginalised’ status that we lost sight of the fact that they’re human. As a delivery team, we were highly conscious about the language, tone and etiquette that we needed to use when interacting with this group of men. But when we did interact with the men – we surprisingly found ourselves laughing with them, connecting with them and building relationships with them. People are people – regardless of how they identify themselves. They are loving, they are caring, they are gracious, they are passionate and they are human. So don’t let the fear of doing something wrong get in the way of doing the deep and meaningful work in a spirit of learning.

It was incredibly eye-opening to review some of the data received through surveys sent out to men from ethic minority backgrounds around their thoughts of accessing mental health support and it was emotional to see the open, honest and candid reflections that were being shared. We are inspired to continue speaking to those with lived experiences of discrimination and mental health challenges.

Do you have any other reflections about the Anti-Discrimination Project that you would like to share?

And the final words come from one of our team members, who said, “I’m just really glad that I get to be involved in supporting this project and it’s been a powerful and challenging journey. It’s been stark to both hear directly and read about the link between discrimination and being made to feel like an ‘other’ has on someone’s mental health.”

Follow Kooth, BLCKOUT and Cultures CIC on Twitter and on Instagram: Kooth, BLKOUT.

Photo credit: Osama Saeed

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