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Mutuality, Wellbeing and Mental Health Recovery

Exploring the roles of creative arts adult community learning and participatory arts initiatives

Project team: Lydia Lewis (lead), Howard Croft, Tony Devaney, Kathryn Ecclestone, Helen Spandler, Jerry Tew, Janet Wallcraft and Clare White

Project overview

The study is concerned with creative practice and mental health and well-being. The focus of the research is how this practice can help create spaces in which people can share knowledge and experiences and support one another in order to promote their well-being and recovery for those who have experienced mental health difficulties. We are referring to this as ‘mutual recovery’.

The study is focusing on adult community learning (ACL) and community arts settings. It is part of a consortium research programme: Creative Practice as Mutual Recovery: Connecting Communities for Mental Health and Well-being, led by Professor Paul Crawford at the University of Nottingham.

This research is funded by a Connected Communities large grant, no. AH/K003364/1. You can find out more about this consortium grant. You can also view the consortium website.

Mutual Recovery through Creative Connection project highlighted as community-university case study

In the article, Clare White (WEA project partner) gives an overview of the project, how it came about and how each partner benefits' please be replaced with 'In the article, Susanne Martikke, research officer at Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation, draws on a joint interview with Clare White (WEA project partner) and Lydia Lewis to give an overview of the project, how it came about and how each partner benefits. Read the full article online.

Download the project flyer

AHRC flyer (PDF 618K, Downloads file) 

AHRC flyer (PDF 618K, Downloads file)

The aims of the research were to explore:

  • the mutual processes through which creative practices in adult community learning and mental health participatory arts settings affect wellbeing and recovery for a range of people involved.
  • how the goals of mutuality, wellbeing and recovery interact with educational goals and traditions in adult community learning and mental health participatory arts contexts.

Policy context

  • Mental health is a pressing social policy and public concern.
  • Heightening concerns about the well-being of carers in the UK (RCGP, 2013).
  • Need to support mental health and adult education practitioners.
  • Growing public scepticism about mental health services and clear opportunities for rethinking the nature of public provision in this field (Crawford, 2013).
  • On-going need to demonstrate the wider benefits of learning, beyond a solely economic agenda.
  • Adult community learning and community arts have documented potential for supporting well-being and promoting mental health recovery.
  • The use of arts and educational provision for therapeutic aims and the effects of aligning this provision with a well-being agenda require critical exploration..

Partnerships & Methods

The research is being conducted in partnership with the Workers’ Educational Association, the UK’s largest third sector provider of adult education,  and in collaboration with two London-based participatory arts organisations. Research methods include participant observation, qualitative interviews and focus groups.  The methodology has been informed by Mental Well-being Impact Assessment (Cooke et al, 2011). The research has included study of a range of creative practices including jewellery-making, creative writing and painting and drawing.

Theoretical Background

The study drew on a range of social theories. Among these were:

  • the capabilities approach - a human rights based theory concerned with the opportunities, or freedoms (capabilities) afforded by the social, political and economic context of people’s lives.
  • relational theory - which explores how relationships with others shape our ways of thinking and acting and can affect our personal agency, or ability to engage with the world.

Lewis (2012a) demonstrated the inter-related processes through which ACL promotes mental health and can address mental health inequalities:

  • Agency freedom: the capability to act purposefully to advance one’s chosen goals and values as an element of a person’s effective power (Sen, 2010).
  • Providing recognition: making people’s experiences visible, affording people value and appreciating common humanity.
  • Capitals: all kind of resources that help you get on in life, including economic, cultural and social ones.

Publications, presentations and working papers

  • Final reports and briefing papers': Lydia Lewis Research Briefing (Short) April 2016 (PDF 252K, Downloads file); Lydia Lewis Research Briefing (Full) April 2016 (PDF 404K, Downloads file) and Lydia Lewis Summary Report April 2016 (PDF 391K, Downloads file).  The full-length final report is available from Lydia: Lydia.lewis@wlv.ac.uk.
  • Interim reports for all the participating organisations. These have been well received with a range of feedback about the uses of the reports within the organisations.
  • Working paper,  'Mutual recovery': a transformative idea for mental health services?' Lydia Lewis, Jerry Tew, Helen Spandler and Tony Devaney Working Paper, University of Wolverhampton, January 2013. This is available from Lydia: Lydia.lewis@wlv.ac.uk
  • Initial briefing for the 2013 Connected Communities showcase event outlining initial findings from the jewellery-making group studied.
  • Poster presentation to the WEA Annual Conference, Building Communities in Challenging Times, Friday 11th October, Cambridge Corn Exchange. This poster was also presented at the launch of the Institute of Mental Health (Nottingham) research centre, Social Futures in Mental Health.
  • Case study for another Connected Communities study about university-voluntary sector partnerships. Entitled 'Mutual Recovery through Creative Connection' this will soon be published on the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement /UK Community Partner Network website as a resource for people interested in community-university partnerships. Taking part in this study also served as an evaluation activity for the research partners, providing an opportunity for mutual exchange about the benefits of the partnership.
  • Presentation: Lewis, L. (2014), Mutuality in the research encounter: some reflections on the ethico-politics of conducting interviews. Presentation to the first CPMR seminar, Institute of Mental Health, Nottingham, June. Available: www.healthhumanities.org/.../ca5277d2644078f404446a11cad0ab82.pp...
  • Mental Well-being Impact Assessment report: Lewis L, Henson J, Wood A & Chapman L with Cooke A, Snowdon L & White C (2013), WEA Community Health Education in Stoke-on-Trent (CHEST) Project: Women’s Boot Camp, Cobridge. Mental Well-being Impact Assessment (MWIA) (PDF 891K, Downloads file)University of Wolverhampton in collaboration with the Workers’ Educational Association, Inukshuk Consultancy and SLaM NHS Foundation Trust.


Dr. Lydia Lewis. Email: lydia.lewis@wlv.ac.uk. Tel. 01902 323251.


  • Cooke, A., Friedli, L. and Coggins, T. et al. (2011), Mental Wellbeing Impact Assessment Toolkit, 3rd edn. National MWIA Collaborative, London. 
  • Crawford, P. (2013), Creative Practice as Mutual Recovery: Connecting Communities for Mental Health and Well-Being, Research Briefing, IHHN. Available: 
  • Desmarais, S. (2013),‘Use Your Hands for Happiness’: crafts practice as a means of building community assets, health and well-being. Contribution to Connected Communities showcase session: F. Hackney (2013), op cit.
  • Gauntlett D, 2011, Making is Connecting, keynote (abstract), Crafting Communtities Connected Communities workshop.
  • Hackney, F., 2013, Crafting Communities: The politics of making, craft, participatory engagement, health and well-being. Connected Communities Showcase, March, London, programme, p. 12.
  • Lewis, L. (2014), ‘Responding to the mental health and wellbeing agenda in adult community learning’, Journal of Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 19 (4): 357-377. 
  • Lewis, L., 2012, The capabilities approach, adult community learning and mental health, Community Development Journal special issue on mental health, 47 (4): 522-537.
  • Lister, R. (2010), Citizenship, civil society and conflict, A gendered perspective. In P. Baert, S. Koniordos, G. Procachi and C. Ruzza (Eds.), Conflict, Citizenship and Civil Society, London: Routledge, pp. 71-90.
  • RCGP (Royal College of General Practitioners), 2013, Supporting Carers in General Practice web site.
  • Secker, J., Hacking, S., Spandler, H., Kent, L and Shenton, J. (2007), Mental Health, Social Inclusion and the Arts, Developing the Evidence Base. Final Report. Department of Health, UClan and Anglia Ruskin University.
  • Secker et al, 2007; Spandler et al, 2007
  • Sen, A., 2010, The Idea of Justice, Penguin Books, London.
  • Sen, A. (1999), Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Spandler, H. Secker, J. Kent, L. Hacking, S. and Shenton, J. (2007) Catching Life: The contribution of arts initiatives to ‘recovery’ approaches in mental health Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 14(8): 791–799