Approaching service users for SUI projects and EX-IN

Across Europe, different service user groups have already been included in SUI seminars (e.g. users of mental health services, people who grew up in care). Initially, we had no constraints as to which service users to include in our seminar. Rather, we chose a participatory approach in which students were encouraged to consider working with the service user groups they were especially interested in. Also, we were interested in finding out about service user organizations which were open to involving themselves with university settings. As can be expected, the students’ interests varied widely, often according to experiences gained in previous internships. Stemming from these experiences, some students had access to service user populations they were familiar with. However, in Germany (and probably in most other countries) user groups vary to a large degree as to how strongly they are “organized”: while there are some groups that have developed elaborate structures of user organization, other groups are either not organized at all or organized by other parties. Some well-organized groups can be found in mental health settings and in the field of addictions: one of the structured approaches in mental health setting is called Experts by Experience (EX-IN) where people who have experienced (treatment in) mental health services are trained to take the role of a peer who helps others in the process of recovery, thus gaining insights into their own problems (Jahnke 2012; Utschakowski/ Sielaff/Bock/Winter 2016). EX-IN is a comprehensive training program that aims at opening up new vocational and personal perspectives for people with experiences of psychiatric treatment. Experiences with mental crises and psychiatric services are discussed and reflected on in these courses and they form the foundation for work as a recovery companion and/or lecturer. Of special importance is that the EX-IN program also prepares members for teaching activities: EX-IN graduates are aware that their personal and reflected history may be important for others in teaching situations and for educational aims. Thus, graduates of EX-IN courses are very well prepared to participate in SUI seminars. Esslingen University of Applied Sciences has mentored the set-up of these EX-IN courses as well as their implementation from the very start and has very good relationships with their organizers. These courses exist in a large number of federal states in Germany. In Baden-Wuerttemberg (the federal state where Esslingen is located) there is the special situation that the EX-IN course is run by a self-help group of persons with experience of the psychiatric system. In the field of addiction, there is a large number of self-help groups in Germany (as well as in other countries), some of which use the twelve-step format. Though meetings take place in small groups, the groups are also organized at state and national levels (e.g. the “Circles of Friends” (Freundeskreise) in the Esslingen area). In comparison, members of non-organized groups are very hard to approach. Thus, in a participatory process with the students, it was decided for SUI seminar I to focus on persons with experience of mental health services and on persons with an addiction who are already organized. One further aim was to develop methods forgetting into contact with participants from other groups which are less organized and less prepared for SUI.
With regard to the selection of participants, Project seminar II drew heavily on experiences gained during Project seminar I and SUI seminar I: it was decided early on that the successful work initiated with mental health and addiction groups would be continued (although with a new focus) while at the same time new groups should be included. Work with the EX-IN group was specifically focused on continuing the successful work started in Project seminar I and thereby provided continuity in an ongoing collaboration with this group. The students of this group had the aim of carving out what a broader, more sustainable and more systematic way of including service users in the BA social work course in Esslingen could look like (over and above the project seminar initiated by the authors). Further, they intended to start with implementing these ideas. Given these aims, collaboration with EX-IN graduates seemed especially promising because some EX-IN graduates had already participated in SUI seminar I and especially in filming the DVD; our experience showed that SUI approaches and the philosophy of EX-IN proved to be highly compatible.
Due to the specific interests and experiences of students who participated in Project seminar II, two new groups were added: 1. former prisoners who were still on probation and under supervision by social workers and 2. young parents living in a parent-child facility who had experience with youth welfare services. In the context of project seminar II, three SUI seminars were developed, conducted and evaluated: SUI seminar II.1 was organized for patients with experience of mental health services, SUI seminar II.2 was for people with an addiction and people on probation while SUI seminar II.3 was conducted for parents living in a parent-child facility. Table 2 shows an overview of project seminars and the service user involvement seminars that were developed in this context.
Table 2: Overview of project seminars and SUI seminars conducted at Esslingen University of Applied Sciences
Project seminar Time SUI seminars SU group
Project seminar I March 2014-
January 2015 SUI seminar I Mental health experiences, addiction
Project seminar II March 2015-
January 2016 SUI seminar II.1 Mental health experiences
SUI seminar II.2 Addictions/probation
SUI seminar II.3 Families