Nursing and drama students collaborate on a project to reap benefits for mental health patients

Nursing and drama students from across the University of Huddersfield are collaborating on a ground-breaking project where role-playing could reap benefits for mental health patients.

The students, from the Nursing (Mental Health) BSc and Drama BA courses, have worked on a range of scenarios involving patients, healthcare professionals and carers to help prepare the nursing students for situations they could encounter both during placements and after graduating.

The drama students have also learned about how to apply their acting skills in unexpected areas, and the hope is that like their nursing counterparts, this will help prepare them for their professional career.

Reaching out to local community helps with understanding

The project is also involving the University’s Public Partnership Group (PPG), which includes people with lived experience of mental health issues and of working in health and social care in the local community. The PPG’s input has helped both sets of students to gain a better understanding of the complexities and nuances around working with mental health issues.

Another key facet of the project is the use of ‘Applied Theatre’, the practice of applying theatre and drama to non-traditional settings. Previous versions of the role-play scenario for the Nursing course included using staff or external theatre companies, until the onset of COVID-19 provided an opportunity for this interdisciplinary collaboration.

Using staff to ‘act’ was too exhausting, we were spending too much time and money going down that route. Eventually, the penny dropped that we have our drama students here at the University, plus the PPG - could we not engage with them? In addition, because of COVID restrictions drama students were in need of a group to work with to complete their applied theatre studies; so it was a win- win.”

Dr Clementinah Rooke, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing

Real world scenarios

Initial sessions involved members of the PPG so that realistic situations that covered genuine, real-world mental health scenarios could be developed, giving the drama students a depth of knowledge that help them and the nursing students. The method draws upon the concept of ‘Forum Theatre’, a radical role-playing approach developed by Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal in the 1970s.

“Boal’s Forum Theatre is the centre-piece of most of this kind of work,” adds Dr Bridie Moore, Senior Lecturer in Drama Theatre and Performance. “Our students work on what is known as an ‘anti-model’ - a scenario which takes the wrong approach.

“They perform this to the nursing students, and it provokes a response about what should be done or said in that situation, for instance, when a carer feels the health worker is shutting them out. The nursing students would discuss how they would react if they were the carer. They would suggest how it should be played out, giving them insight into a carer’s feelings and attitudes.”

The drama students were assessed for these Forum Theatre sessions, while in April they will and in April 2021 they have portrayedact as mental health patients in scenarios that will form part of exams for their nursing counterparts.

“The nurses need to draw out a patient’s past history, medication, current situation and their future hopes," adds Dr Moore.

“Our drama students have learned about these kind of scenarios thanks to information from the PPG and Clementinah. These include issues like reducing medications, thinking about a patient’s back story and their history of mental health issues. It all helps so that our students can authentically act as patients, which also helps the nurses in their learning.”

Further benefits across and outside the University

The concept could also have benefits for other areas of nursing, as Dr Rooke explains: “We will certainly be using it with our international students, as it helps address the nuances of culture, language and intonation.

“It could help as students coming from overseas to work in the NHS probably won’t have the knowledge of little cultural or national characteristics here in the UK. These sessions are a way to help address these issues, help the students, and ultimately help their patients. Bridie’s students said how well they had learned from this, and my students felt it helped them to prepare.”

The success and potential of the project is echoed by Dr Moore, who adds, “My students have had their eyes opened to a whole new way that drama can engage with the public and the community. Making these connections with the two departments has been great and will bear fruits for the future.

“Working with the PPG has helped, as normally this could have been remote research by the students. Members of the group have critiqued their work, developed scripts that have been authenticated by people with these lived experiences, and have worked with people they would never have met.

“They are applying their skills to a real-world situation and exploring issues around communications and the needs of both the student nurses and people living with mental health issues.”

Alison Morris, Service User and Carer Involvement coordinator for the PPG, commented that, “Six of our members came along to share their experiences, and instil a sense of authenticity to the students regarding the realities of mental health illnesses.”

“The sessions worked superbly,” added Service User and Carer Involvement development lead Chris Essen.

“Our members were able to share experiences and contribute to the development of the scenarios which were presented in the forum theatre. We very much hope that the PPG can be involved with more sessions like this in the future.”

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