Focus on Mutual Help Meetings

Posted: 29/01/19

NTW Communications Advisor John Walker visited one of our inpatient wards to find out more about Mutual Help Meetings – special groups which take place every week specifically for all staff and patients to help and support each other.

“For some people it’s been a long time since they’ve been recognised for something positive. There’s a lot of stigma out there about mental health. People might feel worthless, like they’re a burden. To come to this meeting every week and be told ‘I value you’ – I think that’s really inspiring.”

I’m speaking to Specialist Occupational Therapist David Lavery and Assistant Practitioner Lynne Doyle about one of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear (NTW) NHS Foundation Trust’s most inspirational aspects of inpatient care.

Many of NTW’s mental health inpatient wards have Mutual Help Meetings every week, bringing patients and staff together in a supportive environment. I’ve been invited along to Willow View, a rehabilitation and recovery ward at St Nicholas Hospital in Gosforth, to see one for myself.

Willow View treats people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder who have experienced some form of psychosis. As a ‘move-on’ ward helping people rebuild their living skills before returning to the community the quality of the ward’s therapeutic atmosphere for patients is vital.

As David explains: “For many people we’re their last stop before discharge into the community – they might have been in hospital for a very long time. A key part of our role is about building people’s skills before discharge.”

The Mutual Help Meetings have taken place every week at Willow View for over a year and offer a unique way to develop these skills.

“The group has a real family feel to it”, says Lynne. “The service users see the doctors in a different, more relaxed environment where everybody’s in the same team, and this helps their therapeutic relationship with staff, as they can see them as real people. Everybody’s equal and it feels like a real community – we encourage all the patients and staff to feel welcomed. People can laugh and joke on – the meeting breaks down the all the barriers so patients feel equal and feel valued.”

The meetings are one of ten interventions in the Safewards scheme, which is part of Talk 1st , NTW’s trust-wide patient safety initiative. Safewards is used on all of NTW’s wards and aims to improve the environment on inpatient mental health wards for patients through factors such as opportunities for dialogue like the mutual help meetings, patient and staff routines, and even looking at how the physical characteristics of the ward can be improved.

For both David and Lynne it’s clear that there are many benefits for service users in taking part in the groups, in terms of self-esteem, self-worth and breaking down feelings of ‘them and us’.

“It really touches you – you fill up sometimes because you see people saying the loveliest things and thanking other people for the smallest gestures, or just for who they are”, says Lynne. “Some people have never had that praise before. They come out of the group feeling a lot happier and better about themselves.”

The mutual help meetings are positive for ward staff too in terms of maintaining and developing positive and therapeutic working relations with service users.

“It’s really useful for our nurses and support workers to share their experiences together”, says David. “For staff it allows you to engage with patients in a really relaxed way – you get a glimpse of who someone is. They’re not their diagnosis – they’re a real person and these groups allow you to see that.”

After our meeting David and Lynne invite me to come Willow View’s Friday morning mutual help meeting. I’m welcomed with a cup of tea, tasty croissants and hellos from service users and staff.

The group starts with a ‘Round of Thanks’: we go round the room and everyone in turn thanks another person (or other people) in the room. Thankyous on today’s meeting range from a service user who helped with taking Christmas decorations down, another patient visiting from another ward, a nurse for her dedication to her work, and a thankyou to all the staff for being calm and friendly.

We then move on to a round of positive words: everyone picks a word in turn to describe the person on their left, using a grid with tens of options to pick from “Adored” to “Zestful”. Our group’s words today include Joyful, Delightful, Enthusiastic, Creative and Courageous and after suggestions from service users the ward is planning to make a special Geordie words version which I think we can agree would be lush, mint and belter.

Next we all vote for the ‘VIP of the week’ – a service user who has gone above and beyond. It’s a close run thing but service user “A”* is the winner this week for doing really positively in general, making progress in his work with staff, and singing really well in the ward’s recent Christmas carol service.

We also vote for our ‘Star of the week’ – again this is open to everyone to vote in, but in line with the mutual nature of the meeting this award specifically recognises the contribution of members of staff.

The rest of the meeting includes a round of news for the ward, requests and suggestions from service users about the ward and the chance for both staff and patients to offer ideas for future events or activities.

The staff recognise that the meetings took some effort and time to set up but they are now feeling the benefits. “When a group gets going it’s really good – it took lots of getting off the ground and getting staff to buy in”, says one of the staff team. “But now this has happened it’s much easier to consistently run the group.”

Another member of staff agrees. “It seemed false at first to go around the room thanking everyone but now it seems natural. It’s great to hear people say such nice things.”

After my morning at Willow View I can see the benefits of devoting time every week specifically for everyone to offer each other support and help like this, have a friendly cup of tea, a chat and hopefully a laugh about things.

As David says: “If we didn’t have this group, all those little positive things people have done wouldn’t get heard. They’d get noted down in a patient’s notes by staff, but they wouldn’t be heard by other service users. For them to share that with other people is really powerful and I think it instils hope. People new to the ward can see that someone has had a similar experience to them and have been thanked and recognised for what they’ve done. That’s really powerful and helps people maintain their hope and optimism for recovery.”

Before the meeting finishes I ask everyone about their views on the mutual help meetings. One service user answers that “It can be quite isolating to be on a ward but with this meeting, even in moments of isolation you know that we are a group together, and that’s really helpful.”

Another patient on the ward agrees and their words brilliantly get across the benefits of meeting like this. “It feels lovely to be voted VIP of the week but everyone’s a VIP to be honest. We’re all in it together – we’re all a VIP and if we can help each other then that’s a good day.”

Thank you to all the service users and staff on Willow View for giving their views on the mutual help meetings.

Find out more about Safewards at

NTW’s Talk 1st team regularly shares news about good practice in Positive and Safe Care on social media. You can follow Talk 1st on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

*Service user names have been withheld to protect patient confidentiality.