As part of York’s Culture Strategy, Make It York, York CVS and City of York Council have come together to award funding of more than £60,000 to nineteen social and cultural initiatives across the city – with the aim of easing loneliness, isolation, and mental ill-health across the city.
The grants, which were made available via the Better Care Fund and Ways to Wellbeing, were set up in recognition of the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on people’s wellbeing – through shielding, self-isolation, and social distancing. This series of case studies profiles each of the 2021 recipients:
One of the projects which has been supported by the grants is Converge Connected – a cultural education programme with York St John University which offers remote access learning to adults with mental health issues, who use local mental health services.
A team at York St John University visited interested students in the run up to the project to find out about their interests, it’s from here that a small selection of courses were made available for students to take part in.
Over 28 weeks of zoom sessions, 86 students then took part in the Converge Connected courses, with tutors recalling high levels of engagement from the students which led to many high-quality debates and discussions.
With these courses taking place primarily online, new systems to assist any student feeling distressed or unwell during the course needed to be developed. Break out rooms were created to provide short breaks for students and ensure any welfare issues were addressed, whilst volunteers kept the rest of the class settled and focused.
Volunteers for the project were recruited from the student body at York St John to support tutors in classes and to bring their own expertise to classes. Eight student volunteers were involved, including postgraduate and undergraduate students from Creative Writing, Art and Music and Occupational Health and Nursing degrees. Students were offered two training sessions before the project began: one on mental health awareness, another on boundaries and building rapport with students.
For students who struggled with technology, or didn’t have access to suitable technology, materials and letters were posted to aid with their learning. One of these students said, “I felt so left behind, especially during the pandemic. I can’t go online; I’m terrified of scammers and honestly, it’s hard for me to understand how to use it. But I eagerly await the next package of materials and the letters from my tutor are so helpful and kind, and I feel like I’m part of something again.”
Participants of Converge Connected spoke highly of the course as it offered them social elements that they felt they were lacking from their own life for reasons of isolation, disability, and social anxiety. Evaluations show that students felt their confidence improved, they made many social connections and looked forward to classes, with some citing them as the “highlight in their week.”
Nick Rowe, Professor of Arts and Mental Health at York St John University and Director of Converge Connected, said, “In common with many projects, we developed online and postal courses during the Covid lockdown. We are very grateful to the Culture and Wellbeing Fund for their support; this enabled us to continue to develop our courses into what we now call, Converge Connected.
Our participants vary widely in terms of previous educational experience and interests but are united by a strong desire to enrich their lives through learning. Many of them are taking early steps towards more social contact after periods of isolation due to ill health or disability. Others are further along in recovery but didn’t feel ready to re-join in-person classes. With the help of the funding, we have been able to offer a growing number of courses and individual sessions.”
Following the success of this project, Converge Connected are looking to create a ‘Summer School’ of short taster courses over the summer for new students looking to join in October. They’ll also be a collection of ‘mini-courses’ – packages of learning on the York St John Online Classroom with email interaction with tutors. This will help students expand their studies, build confidence for future courses and carrying on learning during vacation times. You can find out more about future projects at www.yorksj.ac.uk/converge