Co-design As Healing: Exploring The Experiences Of Participants Facing Mental Health Problems

Renedo Illarregi, Erika (2022). Co-design As Healing: Exploring The Experiences Of Participants Facing Mental Health Problems. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis is an exploration of the healing role of co-design in mental health. Although co-design projects conducted within mental health settings are rising, existing literature tends to focus on the object of design and its outcomes while the experiences of participants per se remain largely unexplored. The guiding research question of this study is not how we design things that improve mental health, but how co-designing, as an act, might do so.

The thesis presents two projects that were organized in collaboration with the mental health charity Islington Mind and the Psychosis Therapy Project (PTP) in London.

The project at Islington Mind used a structured design process inviting participants to design for wellbeing. A case study analysis provides insights on how participants were impacted, summarizing key challenges and opportunities.

The design at PTP worked towards creating a collective brief in an emergent fashion, finally culminating in a board game. The experiences of participants were explored through Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), using semi-structured interview data. The analysis served to identify key themes characterising the experience of co-design such as contributing, connecting, thinking and intentioning. In addition, a mixed-methods analysis of questionnaires and interview data exploring participants' wellbeing, showed that all participants who engaged fairly consistently in the project improved after the project ended, although some participants' scores returned to baseline six months later.

Reflecting on both projects, an approach to facilitation within mental health is outlined, detailing how the dimensions of weaving and layered participation, nurturing mattering and facilitating attitudes interlace. This contribution raises awareness of tacit dimensions in the practice of facilitation, articulating the nuances of how to encourage and sustain meaningful and ethical engagement and offering insights into a range of tools. It highlights the importance of remaining reflexive in relation to attitudes and emotions and discusses practical methodological and ethical challenges and ways to resolve them which can be of benefit to researchers embarking on a similar journey.

The thesis also offers detailed insights on how methodologies from different fields were integrated into a whole, arguing for transparency and reflexivity about epistemological assumptions, and how underlying paradigms shift in an interdisciplinary context.

Based on the overall findings, the thesis makes a case for considering design as healing (or a designerly way of healing), highlighting implications at a systems, social and individual level. It makes an original contribution to our understanding of design, highlighting its healing character, and proposes a new way to support mental health. The participants in this study not only had increased their own wellbeing through co-designing, but were also empowered and contributed towards healing the world. Hence, the thesis argues for a unique, holistic perspective of design and mental health, recognizing the interconnectedness of the individual, social and systemic dimensions of the healing processes that are ignited.

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