Local pioneer, Oxfordshire Recovery College: Mental health recovery through education

Oxfordshire Recovery College (ORC) is at the forefront of mental health support in the county. It is part of Restore, a charity that helps people with recovery, developing skills, employment, and more. I was fortunate enough to chat with Nell, the College Coordinator, to find out about this life-changing organisation. 

Art work displayed on a table spelling 'Recovery' made as part of Oxfordshire Recovery College's summer student celebration.
A photo from Nell, College Coordinator at ORC, of wonderful art work at the summer student celebration.

What are recovery colleges? And what is ORC?

“Through learning together, we support each other to grow in hope and confidence and develop skills to better manage our own mental health”.

ORC Mission Statement.

Recovery colleges are relatively new to the UK, arriving from the US just over a decade ago. Many might think about mental health help in the form of counselling, for instance, but recovery colleges are unique in offering education that helps alongside clinical or therapeutic approaches. Through learning about the self, personal challenges, diagnoses and more, we look after ourselves better and move forward on the road to recovery. ORC is one of these colleges, offering free courses to provide adults with tools, knowledge, and shared experiences to lead independent and meaningful lives. The College’s inspirational tutors have varying backgrounds in life, including having studied at ORC themselves and made their own recovery journey. 

What sort of education?

This type of education isn’t transporting anyone back to school. ORC has over 30 courses on numerous themes: from understanding specific mental health issues, to tackling stigma, to providing practical life skills. Not only this, but ORC offers courses to carers, friends, and families of those experiencing mental health challenges. As I’m doing my research, I realise how holistic this approach is.  

“ORC courses are really interactive,” says Nell, explaining that during sessions, there is often much discussion of ideas and coping strategies. “Our motto at ORC is ‘no question is a silly question’ and that everyone’s opinion matters. We want students to feel like they are in a safe, non-judgemental, and understanding space.” The courses use various resources – from videos to quizzes – and students have a chance to get to know each other. Plus, as Nell interjects, “the kettle is always on!”. 

There’s something for everyone, and students are encouraged to choose topics that are interesting and important to them. Some find courses on particular diagnoses helpful, such as Understanding Personality Disorders, whilst others focus on wellbeing, such as the (very popular) Wildlife and Wellbeing course. Other courses include Men, Mental Health and SocietyLife On a Budget; and Parenting in Recovery; to name just a few. 

Courses are both in-person and online, and full information can be found on ORC’s website.

A photo showing crafts made as part of Oxfordshire Recovery College's summer student celebration.
Photo from Nell, College Coordinator at ORC, of crafts from the summer student celebration.

Co-production, and sharing experience and stories

“Co-production is at the heart of everything we do.” 

Nell, College Coordinator.

Co-production is intrinsic to recovery colleges, and ORC is no exception. This means that all courses are designed and delivered by an Expert by Experience (a person with lived experience) alongside an Expert by Training (someone with professional training). Co-production allows much value to be placed on lived experience, and Nell explains to me that the “richness” of the courses comes from hearing others’ stories and strategies. 

On the subject of sharing stories, I implore readers to take a look at ORC’s digital Library of Life, which takes inspiration from the Human Library. In fact, drop everything now and watch each video, and be prepared to immerse yourself in stories from incredible individuals. The idea behind the Library of Life was to provide hope and to reassure that no one is alone. “Developing digital stories allows people to share their own experience or a little chapter of their own journey in life,” says Nell. She adds that by using digital media “we can be even more creative in the way that we want to tell our own story, and hope that each individual video might inspire someone else.” The Library is a moving and powerful concept, and a marvellous way to reach out to the community. 

I ask Nell more about what’s at the heart of ORC: “To sum up the ethos of the Oxfordshire Recovery College in three words, it would be ‘Hope. Opportunity. Control.’ Hope for the future; the opportunity to learn and move forwards on our own recovery journey; and the possibility to take control over our own lives.” 

Indeed, recovery colleges are much, much more than course providers. An article in World Psychiatry[1] joins the dots between education as a tool for people with mental health challenges to lead independent and meaningful lives, and this in turn tackling the inequalities they face in society. Recovery colleges are working towards a better world, and I take my hat off to everyone at ORC. 

Coming up next for ORC…

A photo showing Oxfordshire Recovery College students making crafts as part of their summer student celebration.
Photo from Nell. Students trying their hand at crafts at ORC’s summer student celebration.

ORC is in the process of co-producing five brand new courses, aiming to kick off in 2023. Check back in with ORC for news about: Understanding Bipolar DisorderNeurodiversity and Mental HealthMenopause and Mental HealthCoping with Social Anxiety; and Finding Acceptance, Developing Purpose, Building Resilience

How can I join ORC?

“We’re a really friendly team,” Nell says. Students are encouraged to self-refer and always welcome to get in touch: 

Tel: 01865 779613. Email: contactorc@restore.org.uk

And if you’d like to support ORC, visit their website to find out how.

[1] Whitley, R., Shepherd, G. and Slade, M. (2019) “Recovery Colleges As a Mental Health Innovation,” World Psychiatry, 18(2), pp. 141–142. 

If you’re interested in reading more about making a difference in our local community, head to REACH Local’s Social Good articles.