A camp that brings together health students and people with a lived experience of mental illness is providing students with much-needed clinical placements as well as invaluable insights and clinical confidence.
Recovery Camp was founded by staff at the University of Wollongong School of Nursing in 2013, and to date has provided 330 students with over 26,000 hours of clinical placements.
“Clinical placements, especially from nursing degrees, are extremely difficult to get right now and have been recognised as a barrier to growth in health degrees,” says Christopher Patterson, a lecturer at the School of Nursing at the University of Wollongong and one of the camp’s founders and directors.
The camps, held in Bowral, Richmond and elsewhere around NSW, have hosted “a similar number of volunteers who have a lived experience of mental illness,” he adds.
“We use the phrase ‘lived experience of mental illness’ because it brings recognition that the volunteers bring
to the table their experience of mental illness, and it recognises that they are an active participant in the next stage of their recovery.”
Campers take part in activities designed to be both challenging and rejuvenating, such as bush dancing,
tai chi, archery, flying fox, abseiling and rock climbing.
Most students attending the camp are nursing students, with some students from psychology, exercise
science, dietetics and nutrition. Health staff also attend, and in a collaborative program over five days students, staff and people with a lived experience of mental illness contribute in equal measure to the experience.
Consumers teach students
The Recovery Camp is an innovative program different to existing approaches surrounding mental health education and intervention in Australia. Rather than centre upon typical clinical inpatient settings, where consumers are often their most unwell and symptomatic, it places the consumer in the driving seat to ‘teach’ students from a lived experience perspective.
“In this setting we use volunteers’ lived experience to educate students. The volunteers draw on their lived experience of mental illness to get the students to really understand the experience in a way they wouldn’t from text books and lectures,” Christopher says.
The camp provides a means for participants to challenge themselves in a safe environment, connect with others, and re-discover their self-worth. Peer-reviewed published research has found Recovery Camp increases self-efficacy and self-determination, whilst decreasing social isolation, among participants with a mental illness.
Peer-reviewed studies have also found that students who complete a professional experience placement at the camp emerge with more confidence about their clinical skills, and less stigmatising attitudes towards mental health consumers, compared to students who do traditional mental health nursing placements.
“Students actually report a positive increase in being able to communicate effectively with people with a mental illness,” Christopher adds.
The program recently won an award for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning at the 2017 Australian Awards for University Teaching.