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What does it take to be a ‘Community Navigator’?

How do you reduce loneliness? This is a question that we have been thinking about a lot over the last two years while working on the Community Navigators project. This was a research study led by University College London to develop a new programme to support people with complex depression and anxiety address feelings of loneliness. Key features of the programme included:

  • Up to ten sessions with a Community Navigator, who was specifically recruited to this new salaried role, supervised within a secondary mental health service and who followed a manualised person-centred programme
  • The option of attending up to 3 group sessions with others enrolled on the programme for a social gathering where information about useful resources in their local community was shared.

Before we describe what we learned, we can go back to September 2016 and see what two members of our working group, Anjie and Jackie, had to say about our plans and their hopes for the research. They wrote:

“Reducing loneliness – how do you do that then? Hopefully through recruiting the right Community Navigators! Here we reflect on how involving experts by experience in a recruitment exercise can add value and hopefully contribute to a successful research study. We are experts by experience (people who use their lived experience of mental health to inform and contribute, in this case, to a research project) on the working group of a study involving the McPin Foundation and University College London. The study is looking to see whether support from a Community Navigator can help to increase a person’s social connections in their community and reduce feelings of loneliness. It is focused on people with persistent anxiety or depression.

When the research team were looking for people with lived experience to be involved in the recruitment interviews for the Community Navigators, we thought, count us in! During episodes of poor mental health, we experienced how loneliness and isolation can impact on recovery, and how important it is to reconnect and reengage. This meant we knew what a huge difference a Community Navigator could make if the right candidates were chosen.”

 

Presenting the results

In early December, we presented the findings of our work at the launch event of the new Loneliness and Mental Health Research Network. Two members of our working group, Bev and Nick, were co-chairs of the event. We described how our small research study had created a programme that most people liked and felt was helpful to them. Although the study was about demonstrating how such a programme might work and was not intended to show whether it was effective or not, there were indications that it had a positive effect on people’s levels of depression and loneliness. However, our data also showed that addressing loneliness is no easy matter and people sometimes felt challenged by the programme. Significant efforts were put in by participants and their Navigators to make progress towards goals set by individuals themselves.

 

In our presentations, we emphasised the importance of Navigator skills and qualities, such as a positive outlook, empathy and kindness, patience and resilience. Questions from the audience picked up on these vital skills and wanted to know more about them. Could the Navigators have been volunteers? We explained no, not in our opinion. We feel that this is a distinct professional role which requires a considerable skill set, and that it is also important that supervision is available. We feel we were very fortunate that the ‘right’ candidates applied to work as Navigators in our programme. Their commitment to the issue of addressing loneliness among people with depression and anxiety is evident in their continued support of the research team’s work, including attending events such as the Loneliness Network launch!

 

The project has been a hugely enjoyable experience for us at McPin because of the co-production aspect of the research. We can’t thank the members of the working group enough for all they have taught us – whether they are clinicians, experts by experience or researchers, some of whom were wearing several ‘hats’ or identities at the same time. We hope that we can take the energy and learning forward into a larger research study in 2019. The next steps are to share the knowledge generated by this study and to seek support for a project that works in more places and can reach out to more people under the care of mental health services experiencing loneliness.

 

A summary of the findings is available on the funder’s website, as is a shorter news article. To keep up to date with the project and the loneliness network, follow @ucl_loneliness