A first-hand experience of co-design in mental health service design: Opportunities, challenges, and lessons

Int J Ment Health Nurs. 2021 Dec;30(6):1693-1702. doi: 10.1111/inm.12925. Epub 2021 Aug 13.


In an era of mental health service reform, co-design is emerging as a leading framework to guide the design and implementation of new services. Co-design uses the expertise of clinicians, those with lived experiences of services (both consumers and carers) and provocateurs (curious questioners) to understand a 'problem' and develop innovative strategies to address it. It relies on the creation of a safe environment where power imbalances are acknowledged and mitigated, and decisions are made collaboratively. Understanding how to do this effectively within the mental health sphere, where experiences of uneven power distribution and trauma are common, can feel overwhelming. Building a shared understanding of the opportunities and limitations within co-design is also important to establish its place within broader mental health reform. This paper uses an experiential approach to reflect on a co-design process, offering an opportunity to learn from a specific example. Factors that enhanced co-design included formal, remunerated roles, the allocation of time to establish and maintain an intimate, trusting team culture, and the capacity for all team members to be vulnerable. Equally important, strategies needed to be employed to mitigate the challenges inherent within the process, including the impact of power differences, a push to make fast-paced decisions, and a sense of cynicism remaining from previous projects or experiences. When these factors are attended to, the process of co-design can be dynamic, innovative, and transformational for the people participating in it, the project and the mental health sector.

Keywords: co-design; experiential research; health care; lived experience; mental health.

MeSH terms

  • Caregivers
  • Health Care Reform*
  • Humans
  • Mental Health
  • Mental Health Services*