Converge: a model of reciprocal knowledge exchange

Guest article from Professor Nick Rowe, York St John University

At Christmas, 2023, the Converge choir sang at York Minster as part of the York St John University carol service. In May our theatre company, Out of Character, performed a new version of Jack Thorne’s play After Life at York Theatre Royal. Over 80 Converge participants shared their art, theatre-making, creative writing, and music with each other at our end of term sharing. We published our sixth volume of creative writing. This vibrant activity is usual now for Converge, a partnership between York St John University and the local NHS provider offering free arts education to local people with mental health problems.

The project began with a simple idea: to offer a course in theatre to local people who use mental health services and to involve university students in the delivery of the course. The first course, An Introduction to Theatre, took place in 2008 and led to the creation of a theatre company, Out of Character, and the development of courses across the university. From the outset it was important that these courses took place in a properly resourced place in the university environment.

Now, 15 years later, in the academic year 2022-23, we ran 48 courses (usually 8 to 10 weekly sessions) in the arts to over 220 adults with lived experience of mental ill health. We offered free courses in theatre, comedy improvisation, research methods, dance, music, fine art, creative writing, philosophy, music, song writing, and we have a choir with over thirty members and a theatre company.

Converge: A Community of Learners. A partnership between York St John University and mental health service providers.

Converge offers an innovative model of reciprocal knowledge exchange which jointly benefits universities, students, people with experience of mental health challenges (‘Converge students’), healthcare bodies, and community partners. It may be seen as part of a national move towards a community-based model of mental health support services, as well as a key example of universities’ aims to support wider society. This model improves collaboration between healthcare and education and adds value to what universities and third sector partners can offer in support of employability and social justice.

In this article, I discuss what has led to Converge’s enduring success, and offer a model of knowledge exchange that may be of interest to other universities. I suggest that three key characteristics have been crucial in the sustainability and success of the project: a clear rationale and set of principles; the convergence of interests of a university and a mental health provider; and the importance of the university environment.

  1. A clear rationale and set of principles: students not service users, education not therapy.

    There have been many moments over the last fifteen years when it has been necessary to return to the key principles of the Converge model, in order that it should not be pushed out of shape and lose its integrity. These principles are driven by an understanding of the problems that people with enduring mental health problems face.

    The mental health identity is corrosive and limiting, and questions of identity are central to the history and experience of people who have used mental health services (Link et al 2001; Livingston & Boyd, 2010). A mental health diagnosis and its stigma can overshadow and over-define an adult’s identity. With opportunities and potential being narrowed, an individual can become limited in what they think of as their potential, risking forever remaining a ‘patient’ or ‘service user’.

    From the outset, we wanted to challenge this. To offer education, not therapy, in a socially valued environment, in which people are regarded as students, not people with mental health problems. The heart of the approach can be summarised by the phrase ‘Students not patients; Education not therapy.’ Whatever their histories of mental ill health, participants become and are referred to as ‘Converge students’ and form a valued part of the university community. This simple reframing challenges the corrosive nature of the mental illness identity, which can reduce aspirations and inhibit recovery.

  2. A convergence of interests between a university and a mental health service provider.

    We called the project Converge because of the convergence of interests of a university and a mental health service provider. From the outset, we saw that the benefit of the work was reciprocal: students and staff benefit as much as those who come on to campus to take the courses. Converge offers a model of collaboration between a university and a mental health service provider that can make a real difference in the lives of users of mental health services, full-time students, and the university community. Each of these groups can learn from the other. It matches the ‘core business’ of its key providers: the university educates its students; the health service has a valuable provision for its clients; and students learn through meeting and working with adults with long-term experiences of mental ill health.

    The following examples of convergence, or reciprocal knowledge exchange, demonstrate the potential of the collaboration of a university and a mental health service provider:
    • Music students teach and conduct the choir.
    • Theatre students perform alongside members of the Out of Character Theatre Company.
    • A doctoral student leads a Converge course in music composition.
    • Art students exhibit their work as part of an exhibition at the local mental health hospital, alongside the work of patients and Converge students.
    • Design students work with members of our evaluation and research team to design an ideal mental health waiting room.
    • A marketing student helps our theatre company to develop a social media presence to publicise their work.

      This collaboration is crucial to the success and vitality of the project.

  3. ‘Wow, it’s a university.’ The central role of the university.

    “My self-esteem was on the floor. I felt like I was on the fringes of society, I was worthless. And then suddenly to be brought into a university precinct…it’s like wow, yes, to be scooped up from the edges of society and brought right bang in the centre where it is all happening…”
    (Newcastle Converge student in the Converge Evaluation Project.)

    I often say that the university is the hero of Converge. It makes the difference. Consider this example: early on in the development of Converge, I walked with a new participant into a drama studio, having set up theatre lights and staging, and as we entered he turned to me and said, ‘You are taking us seriously.’ To this person, it was the environment that conveyed the message that we value people and are taking them seriously as theatre students. The university environment can play a part in social justice, challenging stigmatised identities and inviting a re-evaluation of self.


Converge aims to offer people who experience mental health problems the opportunity to challenge the mental health identity through becoming part of the university community. Institutions define identities – in the case of the psychiatric hospital, identity can be spoiled by stigma and over-identification with the diagnosis. Universities call for very different selves – aspirational, hopeful, and focused on personal and professional development. The former confines, the latter seeks to liberate. The aim is to offer people with mental health problems the opportunity to benefit from the transformative potential of the university community. The result is twofold: a rich and exciting educational arts opportunity for people with mental health problems, alongside authentic and practical work experience for university students.

Professor Nick Rowe
Director of Converge
York St John University
[email protected]


Converge (2022). The Converge evaluation project. York St John University.—full-report—WEB.pdf

Link, B. G., Struening, E. L., Rahav, M., Phelan, J. C., & Nuttbrock, L. (2001). On stigma and its consequences: Evidence from a longitudinal study of men with dual diagnoses of mental illness and substance abuse. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(2), 208-230.

Livingston, J. D., & Boyd, J. E. (2010). Correlates and consequences of internalized stigma for people living with mental illness: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Social Science & Medicine, 71(12), 2150-2161.