Co-production and what it means to me: benefits, challenges and the future


Bo was just 19 when she saw the transformative power of co-production as part of her love of performing. It wasn't until 2020 that she realised that this knowledge could help design mental health services that put lived experience at their heart. Bo explains:

I have always been a fan of collaborative (or co-producing) work.  When I was 19, I belonged to the Royal Court Youth Theatre and was privileged to work on a collaborative coproduced project with members of the National Association of Young People in Care (NAYPIC).

I saw how their confidence and self-esteem grew.  I watched them blossom as they realised that they could discuss their often deeply traumatic experiences in a safe, supportive space.

These experiences then informed the piece of work that we then all performed on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre.  As you can imagine, the experience of performing in a well-known theatre really went towards giving them back that self-esteem which had been robbed from them; a small start but an important one.

This proved to me the transformative power of peer activity, coproducing work, believing in someone and giving them a chance to prove what they are capable of.

So what does co-producing within the Open Mental Health (OMH) Alliance mean to me?

Well, I have bipolar disorder 1. It’s a serious mental health illness, and the episodes, usually ‘manic’, followed by crippling depression, are incredibly debilitating.  I have had 5 such episodes in my life and been sectioned several times, which was usually frightening and traumatic.

Eventually, I was referred to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist specialising in bipolar disorder.  We never knew such a thing existed.  This therapy helped as finally, I could discuss my ‘shame issues’.  Anyone who has experienced manic episodes can tell you how ashamed you feel afterwards when you are ‘well’.

When I first started as an Expert by Experience Team Leader (EbEL) in May 2020, I still hadn’t much confidence in myself due to the last episode in December 2018, which had yet again brought up deep feelings of shame and inadequacy. I also now couldn’t work in the chosen field that I’d trained in, so my self-esteem was pretty low.

I remember attending an online meeting and having no idea what the abbreviations and acronyms meant. It made me frustrated, and to be honest, I felt a bit thick, which I’m not.

Luckily, I had a lot of support from the Head of Coproduction & Involvement, who recruited me.  She helped build my confidence so that I felt ok asking what things meant; I also asked for a list of those pesky abbreviations and acronyms.  

EbELs were a relatively new thing when I started in May 2020 so when we began to have EbEL team meetings, it was great.  Other people who had been through tough times with their lived experience who really ‘got it’ even if we had/have different severe mental illnesses and lived experiences.

We were involved in the organic growth of Open Mental Health Somerset.  That’s a powerful thing.

We’ve found that many projects and working groups want us involved to coproduce from the start, and that is when the creative process works best.

If we are presented with/invited to join a project midway through or at the end the final product, it is not coproduced, and it shows.

We need to be in at the beginning to feed in our wisdom of lived experience of mental health…why waste that valuable resource?

We have had several conferences and meetings when we’ve had the chance to meet clinicians and other EbELs face to face, which has been really productive, for example, hearing from clinicians about the pressures that they face in their working lives.

Another very empowering thing for me has been the chance to lead on setting up a project accessing the grant funding.

"Not only have I seen others transformed by interacting with the creative arts as I mentioned earlier, but I have experienced it first-hand, and because of that experience, I’m in the middle of setting up mental health and arts workshops as we have no present provision."

It’s been empowering to be involved in the grant application as that used to be part of my former job, and it feeds into that passion and belief that the arts can help someone along their recovery journey and give them back the joy in their lives.

So not only am I getting the confidence-building experience of being an EbEL in working groups, but I am also able to hopefully get these valuable workshops going and that, for me is fantastic and life-affirming.  This has all been due to being involved as an EbEL.

If you would like to find out more about the importance of co-production, why not register for our webinar on Thurs 7 July at 12 pm with our panel of Experts by Experience.  Email to register.