InterAct: a VCS/ NHS partnership supporting children of parents experiencing mental illness

Mandy Bell, Development Lead, Gloucestershire Young Carers

When your steering group comprises of senior managers from the NHS and a VCS organisation alongside a parent and two unrelated teenagers, you know that you are on the right track to understanding need and how to respond to that need from pretty well all angles. Building a partnership between a small independent charity, a large bureaucratic NHS Trust and adult and young service users takes time and a great deal of determination from all involved but when it works, the combined wealth of knowledge, experience and skills can move mountains.

Improving outcomes for children of parents with a mental illness is the aim of the partnership. Underpinned by clear evidence of the increased propensity for those children to develop mental health issues themselves and of what works in promoting their resilience, Gloucestershire Young Carers and 2gether NHS Foundation Trust are delivering a whole family programme which is achieving very positive outcomes.

The Foundations

Gloucestershire Young Carers and 2gether NHS Foundation Trust have a long history of working together resulting, from the early days, in some award winning projects. Whilst we have pride in our successes, our early co-work was not without its challenges, the first and foremost of those being that projects tended to be short-lived and dependant on individual staff members being motivated to make a project happen, only for it to lose focus or dwindle away as staff members moved on. For the charity, being heard and having influence beyond a small group of enthusiastic Trust colleagues was a real challenge and at times felt like being stuck in a  revolving door which alternately allowed access or gently moved one outside again.

Building a partnership 

Reflecting back on the process of building our now embedded partnership, my thoughts are taken to the challenges and the underpinning values.

Challenge number one was to win hearts and minds throughout a large and bureaucratic organisation and the key tool required to achieve this was the voice of the service users. Organisations can try and tell the story of the people they support but nothing provokes thought and action like a face to face presentation or meeting with the people who need support. Our young carers’ forum is well versed in delivering these presentations and jokingly commented that they only feel that they have succeeded in making a difference when they make someone at the top cry; that’s ‘moving hearts’ in action!

What can we do together that we cannot do alone?

Next it was ‘dog with a bone’. Once people really understand the problem and the beginnings of how it might be resolved, it’s time for determined action to get those with influence fully engaged and committed to bringing about change. In my experience this can be time consuming but is really not difficult. The health service, by its very nature, is full of people who want to bring about positive change. Those people are often incredibly busy and so that is where the roots of a partnership can begin to grow. What can we do together that we cannot do alone? What strengths and resources can we pool together? These questions, asked at the wrong time when people are feeling overwhelmed, may appear to have no impact. Persistence is the key and not being deterred by a slow response.

If there is a will, there is a way

Stick with us and we’ll sort things out as quickly as we can’. Working in the VCS, you are very aware that the wheels of the NHS can turn exceedingly slowly in comparison to a small organisation able to respond rapidly to changing circumstances. There are countless examples of where our partnership hit difficulties because, for example, a funder had set a time frame seemingly unachievable by the Trust’s systems and processes. Our experience is that all these difficulties can be overcome by negotiation with funders; creative problem solving; utilising the two organisational systems to achieve a resolution and bringing in expertise from other teams. Our experience is that if there is a will there is a way and provided that those leading the partnership believe in this, all will be resolved even if it is not quite on time.

Mutual Benefits of Working in Partnership

What did the project and the two organisations gain from one another?

From the perspective of a small VCS organisation our partnership project benefitted in many ways. This would include having access to NHS directors and senior executives and being afforded the ability for our small organisation and its service users to influence practice e.g. driving the re-training of the NHS Trust’s workforce in an otherwise overlooked area of practice. We learnt that there is no point advising the Trust what they should be doing when we do not fully understand what pressures they are facing or what other priorities they have. What we can do, however, is to help the Trust to find out what is going well and what challenges they face in respect of meeting the needs of our mutual service users so that they can make their own decisions about how they overcome those challenges.

From the perspective of the NHS Trust the partnership with a small VCS organisation has “really made us stop and think before we say ‘that’s just how we do things here’”. They have recognised that clinicians cannot think that a referral to the VCS means ‘job done’.

Together we believe that trust in the partnership is key and the generosity of time and sharing of knowledge between us has been invaluable in achieving positive outcomes. This project has reaffirmed that we are both experts in our fields and will achieve the greatest good through true partnership working.

As for losing momentum when personnel change, our more strategic partnership has meant that when staff move on to different roles, they are often a little higher up the tree and have a little more influence. Consequently this partnership has resulted in an internal momentum of positive impact within the NHS Trust.

I can think of no better way to end than with the words of the service users:

‘You came and gave us a way through’ (parent)

‘The support has been life changing’ (young carer)

One thought on “InterAct: a VCS/ NHS partnership supporting children of parents experiencing mental illness

  1. This is what we have been attempting in Lancashire, but so far it has fallen on deaf ears. Mandy’s way of working should be the norm nationally,but I think some CCGs see it as losing some of their power and do not want to engage.
    But we will keep knocking at the door.


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