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How Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums supports mental health and recovery

Clara Shield, Programme Lead for Wellbeing for the Communities team at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, explains how her team is working to support mental health and addiction recovery through cultural spaces.

With a background in creative youth and community work, supporting individuals and groups to explore identity, story and wellbeing in a creative way, Clara Shield now leads the delivery of creative heritage workshops within clinical and community mental health care settings for Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

Fundamentally, these efforts centre on welcoming and connecting people to the past, present and future of the North East through stories, shared spaces and experiences.

Mindful Practice Podcasts

One of the recent projects undertaken by Clara and her team has been the Mindful Practice Podcasts for People in Addiction Recovery and with Mental Health Problems. This podcast series is designed to help heritage professionals better understand the mental health and addiction recovery sector. It also encourages collaboration, allowing the heritage and health sectors to work together more closely.

The podcast series features knowledge, expertise, and experiences from occupational therapists, psychotherapists, mental health specialists, museum and gallery professionals, freelance artists, academics, and those with lived experience of addiction recovery.

The podcast was born after the Baring Foundation reached out to the team about their work at St Nicholas’s Hospital (Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear Trust – CNTW) in Gosforth. Clara says,

“The foundation spoke to us at the 2022 Museums Association Conference, and we discussed the idea of creating a resource for the sector to learn about our work. We thought a podcast would be a good way of doing that. A lot of heritage professionals are part-time, and stretched in our roles. A podcast is a useful, usable resource that can be easily tapped into and shared.

“We spent around seven months solidifying our relationships with potential contributors, producing a series of interviews on mental health and addiction. We had to turn these interviews into six themed episodes, which launched in November 2023.”

Art as therapy – The role of Heritage Programmes in recovery?

Mindful Practice encourages inclusive practice in cultural spaces, and the use of creativity and heritage in therapeutic programmes.

There are six episodes in total, each focusing on a different theme relating to delivering creative heritage programmes and activities for those in addiction recovery and with mental health problems. They include:

  • Organisational values & co designing with agenda alignment
  • Collections connections to clinical and care outcomes
  • Understanding clinical environments
  • Staff Wellbeing
  • Creative interventions – demonstrating impact
  • Legacies

This idea of heritage and creativity as a therapeutic tool isn’t new to Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, as Clara explains:

“The Communities Team or Outreach Team, as we were previously known, has been in existence at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums for over 20 years now. We have always, as a museum service, supported the adults in the community who, for whatever reason, find it challenging to engage with museums.

“The Health and Wellbeing programmes were originally set up over a decade ago by Zoë Brown, Outreach Officer, who leads on adult engagement covering older people (Platinum Programme), people with mental health problems (Wellbeing Programme), people in addiction recovery (Recovery Programme) and two dedicated place based interventions in North and South Tyneside (Network Programmes).

“As a local service, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums respond to local community needs and develop partnerships that offer support to those who need it. We’re doing a lot of work with communities around isolation, in the aftermath of COVID-19.”

Engaging with addiction recovery and mental health

There are various factors involved in successfully engaging with those in addiction recovery and with mental health problems, including programme delivery, partnership building, collaborative design, risk, collections and venues, staff support and self-care.

All of these factors and more are covered by the podcast series, which presented its own unique set of challenges, as Clara explains:

“Mental health and addiction can be charged topics, and for many people – including people who worked on the podcast – they are also very personal ones. We had to manage personal experiences in a professional way, and make sure everyone’s mental health was protected while we explored these areas. The episode of staff wellbeing delves further into this.

“One thing we stress in the podcast is that we’re not the experts; we’re learning as we go, too. But it’s a reminder to other learners that you’re not alone in navigating these topics.”

Perfecting the podcast

While the themes of mental health and addiction recovery required careful consideration, the project wasn’t just a thematic challenge. The practical elements involved in crafting a podcast also required thought. But, as Clara explains, the rewards were more than worth it.

“There were a lot of factors to consider: how long should it be?  How many different voices should you include? How do we structure it?

“We knew that each episode should have a theme. This was largely so that listeners could identify the information they need most pressingly. They come into an episode with expectations, and those expectations are met.

“The feedback we’ve received from people who’ve listened to it suggests that it’s been really useful for them.”

Measuring impact

While the podcast targets cultural institutions and sector workers, the end goal has always been to provide better support for those living with mental health problems and addiction recovery. Measuring the impact the podcasts have had in this regard is “difficult”, as Clara says, but what feedback they have received has been overwhelmingly positive.

“With podcasts, you can monitor views and downloads, but it’s more difficult to measure the impact it has on listeners, and this is more important to us. We’ve discussed various methods of gathering feedback and have even hosted events where we played snippets of the episodes and asked people to give comment.

“Even though we can’t produce any more episodes, we are looking at ways to utilise the episodes we’ve got.”

Advice to other museums? Expect the unexpected

“In addiction recovery it takes time to establish trust with staff and organisations,” Clara says. “So, you’ve got to give projects the time they need to forge that trust, because that’ll give you a much smoother, more effective programme, which ultimately benefits the people you’re hoping to work with.”

Building a trusting relationship with those living with mental health problems or addiction recovery means respecting their boundaries. They have their own battles to face, and it’s up to the museums to offer support and contingencies.

“Expect the unexpected at all times, and always have options up your sleeve. People in addiction recovery, or who have mental health problems, are constantly fighting their own battles. They can have bad days, and these bad days might not align with your meticulous planning.

“Cultural spaces can act as a safe haven for people who are struggling – a place to tell their stories and hear the stories of others – and fall back in love with the knowledge they haven’t thought about since school. That’s the power a museum can have.”

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