Synergi: Five years of foundation building

When Synergi’s journey began in February 2017, funded for five years by the Lankelly Chase Foundation, our focus on curating evidence around the narratives of ethnic minority people with lived experience of severe mental distress on the impact of racism, ethnic inequalities and multiple disadvantage, was not widely owned.

Our motivation was, and is, the over-representation of ethnic minority people with severe mental illness in psychiatric institutions, and the coercive, harsh (rather than therapeutic) forms of treatment they are exposed to.  A picture that hasn’t changed in 50 years.

Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on Black and ethnic minority communities worldwide has exacerbated existing inequalities. We’ve had Grenfell. The Windrush Scandal. The Coronavirus Act 2020 (which reduced restrictions on the use of the Mental Health Act). George Floyd’s murder. The Black Lives Matter global protests. Each has sparked outrage, demands for change and has placed institutions, white privilege and racism under public scrutiny, and has galvanized collaborations, debates and movements.

Meanwhile, we have a government that redacted a whole section on the causes and factors contributing to the disproportional impact of Coronavirus on Black and ethnic minority communities in its Covid-19: review of the disparities in risks and outcomes (2020) and commissioned the Sewell Report which although well evidenced, went on to suggest racism doesn’t play an important role in shaping inequality.

To tackle multiple disadvantage, it is necessary to introduce interventions for whole systems change; interventions that address the structural, institutional and interpersonal processes that drive disadvantage. However, researchers, policymakers, commissioners and government agencies have a limited understanding of how these dimensions of disadvantage inter-relate, interact, unfold over an individual’s life course and amplify inequality and risk of poor health. Also important is how all of these processes interact across systems.

Previous initiatives launched to remedy these challenges, including Delivering Race Equality and Breaking the Circles of Fear, have not been sustained. Among the reasons are a lack of funding alongside resistance and opposition, and rather conservative professional responses to allegations of institutional racism, including efforts to remove racism from policy and practice guidance.

Five years later, we have generated a wealth of knowledge co-curated and co-produced by several key stakeholders in this field, which is now available on our legacy site, with more outputs schedule for publication up to April 2023. These outputs only scratch the surface regarding Synergi’s impact since its inception.

A significant amount of the work went on behind the scenes, from establishing collaborations, building trust, transforming mindsets, creating ecosystems in different regions and transitioning them into national alliances, alongside knowledge generation and Participatory Action Research. All made possible through our model of collaborative leadership.

This approach has led to greater literacy around the patterning of stark ethnic inequalities in severe mental distress, supported by a deeper understanding of the roles that structural, institutional and interpersonal racism play in shaping these inequalities.

Our systems work, through Creative Spaces, the National Pledge to reduce ethnic inequalities in mental health systems and the Synergi National Pledge Alliance, have had an impact in specific localities covering London, Greater Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham.

It has also led to the formation of Synergi Leeds, with recurrent funding from the Leeds Commissioner, and which is based on a partnership between Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Leeds City Council and Forum Central in collaboration with a range of partners, including Inspire North, Touchstone and LeedsGate, supported carers and experts by experience.

We have championed the power of generating and sharing knowledge, provided critical new insights, and raised motivation through our theory of change, which led to a NESTA/Observer New Radicals 2018 Award.

To date we have published 10 academic papers, six briefing papers (one on Creative Spaces will be published in April 2022), each with clear recommendations for change, alongside a wealth of substantial, wide-ranging and high quality guest blog posts, podcasts and filmed conversations.

Our photovoice project, in partnership with The Psychosis Project at Islington Mind, Haringey Mind, The African and Caribbean Mental Health Services (Manchester) and LMCP Care Link (Manchester), won the Queen Mary University of London Community Engagement 2018 Award. That same year we launched a National public survey on ethnic inequalities and mental illness.

We have hosted eight co-designed Creative Spaces events, three during lockdown, have secured 33 senior mental health leaders as signatories to our National Pledge, 28 of whom have published two sets of progress reports, highlighting their action on the seven Pledge commitments. Their third progress reports are due to be published in the summer, 2022.

We are reaching the finale of ‘From Pledge to Action’, a three-month, co-curated digital campaign featuring a range of voices and actions – from lived experience and activists to systems leaders and NGO heads – on racial justice and equality in mental health, expressed through films and podcasts.

Although the current phase of Synergi has come to an end, we are excited that through succession planning and a legacy process, involving stakeholders and collaborators, Lankelly Chase has committed to fund Synergi Phase 2, an ambitious and exciting programme of work which focuses on the intersection of racial justice and mental health.

Hosted by NSUN, and held by a governance board including Catalyst 4 Change, the second phase of Synergi will centre anti-racism, lived experience and community action. Announced on 7th February 2022, Synergi Phase 2 will be officially launched in September 2022.

Synergi Phase 2’s five work strands are:

Remembrance as Resistance: A multimedia and digital exhibition and festival programme on how community activism has tackled mental health and racial injustices over the last 40 years in the UK.

Building as Abolition: A means to influence funders to better understand community action work in the mental health space so that it is resourced and elevated.

Creative Spaces: Building on the existing place-based creative and collaborative system change work, which was developed by the Synergi Collaborative Centre.

Democratising Policy: By managing an annual small grants programme for grassroots campaigning groups working on the intersection of racial justice and mental health.

Transformational Governance: To embed and champion ethical and collaborative ways of working within Synergi – and beyond it.

What is clear is that Synergi’s work is more relevant and vital than ever, and it is time to move beyond just documenting ethnic inequalities and to begin identifying new ways of addressing them.

Synergi Phase 2’s vision reinforces that goal and we are excited and proud to witness it.

Photo credit: Siora Photography/Unsplash