I felt it was about time to do a blog about something which has been a large part of my work life during the pandemic. I’m talking about the Connecting People project.
If you haven’t heard about the Connecting People model – then I suggest you visit https://connectingpeople.net to find out more about this model developed by research and social workers at the University of York – designed to improve social connections. Then head on over to https://connectingpeople.net/sheffield-blog/ to see a variety of stories about social connections and the Connecting People project in Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS FT and in the city beyond. You can also listen to several brilliant podcasts hosted by the amazing Jess Gibson with a variety of people on the topic of social connections.
The statistics are shocking regarding the amount of social connections someone with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) might have. Often it is as low as 12 people – and a large amount of that 12 will be healthcare professionals rather than “true” social connections. And the quality of those connections is often (not always) questionable when people are unwell. I know for me, when I was really in the depths of illness a couple of years ago – my only connections were with the mental health world – whether that was professionals or other people in hospital/treatment with me, and this wasn’t always positive and often held me back. For me, part of the recovery process has been opening up my social connections to non-mental health ones, people who enjoy the same hobbies as me for example. For many people things like connections with drugs can be a huge issue. On my first hospital admission I was in with a lady who was withdrawing from heroin – she had thrown her phone and all her contacts away prior to coming in to detox, the only number she kept was her partner’s who was also detoxing – as she knew she literally had to cut her ties with that world entirely in order to move on and not be dragged back in. The quality of social connections is so important – a few really positive, fulfilling connections is much better than many negative, shallow ones.
In the past year, more than ever before, the world has woken up to the real impact that social connections have on ourselves as human beings. We suddenly found ourselves in a world of enforced isolation, desperately scrabbling at ways to get our fix of other human beings. For me, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the effect the past 15 or so moths have had on my social connections. I don’t live with friends or family so I had a very real fear of not seeing someone close to me for months on end. So the beginning of the pandemic was anxiety provoking for me as it was for most people in terms of the fear of social isolation. Over a year on, and actually I think I’m in someways grateful for the effect the pandemic has had on my social connections – particularly the quality of them. Because we were so limited for so long as to who we could socialise with, and how many people and where, it meant that definitely for me, I found myself pursuing those social connections that nourished me, that made me feel better, valued, and left me feeling energised rather than drained. That inward groan to go to that dinner gathering you didn’t really want to go to is largely a thing of the past. Many people I have spoke to have said how they feel like the quality of their social connections has increased in the past year – even though the overall number of social connections may have decreased. I’ve found myself spending a lot more time with like-minded individuals and not having to be forced to spend time with people that drain all my energy or bring me down. I’m fortunate I guess that a lot of my hobbies are sports that can be often done outdoors, and also because I work in the NHS I was in the fortunate position of being able to continue working (and hugely increase the amount of connections I made there because of virtual meeting platforms). Another (much slower, but has definitely happened) consequence for me has been hugely reducing my social media use. I don’t spend my time aimlessly scrolling through newsfeeds – I go out and meet people or message them individually. How wholesome!
Anyway, back to the Connecting People project. This had been something that had been introduced to SHSC prior to the pandemic, but I think it was the pandemic and virtual platforms to meet that really started to allow it to gain traction. We’ve had over 50 people – service users, staff, carers and more from the Trust and beyond join our meetings in the past year. We’ve had members of staff from the clinical and corporate sides of the Trust, staff from the lowest wage bands right up to the top of the scale. We’ve had service users join us which has become a gateway to them becoming more involved in the Trust and volunteering with us, we have had service users join us from secure hospital, the community teams, when they are well and when they are not well. We have had academics, people from the voluntary and third sector…we don’t have any limits as to who can be involved in this project – you just have to be personally enthusiastic about improving social connections for people connected with our services (and yes, that means staff too!)
Something that is very much right at the heart of the project, especially in SHSC, is co-production. And I do feel we’ve given it a pretty good bash. Co-production is harder to do that people realise, especially in a top-heavy, hierarchical organisation such as the NHS. However hard we might try, we can’t deny the fact that we do need buy-in from those nearer the top. Things like wider spread of the project’s benefits and financial barriers are really affected if we don’t have the support of those people in the organisation with clout and purse strings – unfortunate but true. But what we can do is make sure the voices of all the stakeholders in the project – whatever their position – are heard. And I think we do a pretty good job of that.
Our meeting on Thursday was a fine example of this. We had actually been very close to having to postpone the meeting for various reasons, but I am so glad we went ahead as it was one of the most passionate meetings I have ever attended. Some of our meetings run with a more formal agenda – updates on what’s going on, presentations, activities around next steps and goals etc. but this one was an informal meeting (something which made my colleague, Amy (who works in the business part of the Trust) rather anxious!) and we kind of just let the conversation flow. The meeting was attended virtually by an almost even distribution of staff and service users. And what unfolded was one of the most intense but most vitalising debates I’ve seen in a while. I honestly wish we could have recorded it – or had us all debating in public at a Quality Improvement event – it really was a fine example of staff and service users listening to each other, challenging each other, holding each other to account and speaking truly honestly and freely without feeling like their voice was less important than anyone else’s. Every single person in the meeting contributed so much valuable experience – we had problems managing how many hands were going up on MS Teams! The topic ended up coming round to care planning – a constant source of contention and something that is nigh on impossible to get “right”. But I kind of think the topic was irrelevant – what was important was the quality, equality and openness of the conversation.
However, one thing we did agree on is, this is all very well, but how do we turn this enthusiasm and idea-making into actual, sustainable change. That can make improvements for staff and service users. And this is where we keep coming up against blockages.
One: We don’t “sit” under a specific department in the Trust – this makes it really difficult to fully gain traction and sustainability. This means if people who are contributing to the project by their own goodwill don’t have the time, leave the Trust or simply lose interest – the project stalls.
Two: We are not yet embedded across the Trust, we have had a significant impact on those directly involved with the project but how do we make this go further? We are not asking for the level of commitment shown by those currently involved from everybody – but some level of buy-in and thinking “oh yeah – this is quite a good idea” would be helpful.
Three: Finances – we have no funding and rely on the goodwill of all those involved, which is great, but unfortunately in this 21st century world is not sustainable.
Four: I think now everyone recognises the importance of social connections, but unfortunately they are forever falling to the bottom of the priority list when risk, medications, CQC inspections etc. get in the way.
We still have a long way to go I think in making social connections more of everybody’s business in health and social care. But we are making tracks and I hope it continues. This project has proved that even with a large hiatus and loss of staff involved at its core, there is still the enthusiasm for it to continue. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being involved with Connecting People – its hard work, and sometimes I don’t have the time or the headspace or the motivation – but its meetings like last week that keep me fired up. You don’t get that sort of atmosphere in many places in the NHS, I wish everyone could get a taste of it. I think also, the fact that I am primarily a service user (though also a paid member of staff – but a low down one) and I’ve been encourage to take the lead alongside others has been fantastic. It has given me a lot of confidence in life and in work – its definitely improved my connections in the workplace for sure! It feels pretty good to be able to say yes I’m a service user, but I’m heading up this project for the Trust. It feels great to be able to be trusted with that.
I’m obviously not in this on my own – far from it. I just want to name a couple of vital people to the fact that this project was able to gain traction and be sustained in the Trust. Liz, who took the reins for the first part until she left the Trust – an OT by background she was the perfect person to pull this forward (and she can’t seem to quite leave us anyway!). Richard – Associate Director, who has been a huge support and advocate for us from higher up in the Trust throughout – its brilliant to have your passion for this project onboard. Amy and Jess who both took the business side of things under their wing, we couldn’t have done this without your organisation and knowledge! Emily and Jess, both who have given up a lot of their own time to help form this project and bring it forward – its great to have you both involved with more stuff in the Trust now too. And Martin from the University of York – one of the leads on the research behind this who has always been accessible and there for guidance and advice. And of course, I can’t name you all but everyone who has supported this projected at any point throughout – we have some amazingly committed, experienced and enthusiastic people involved and working alongside you all has been a privilege!