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This special issue contains papers related to the theme ‘Experience Consultants’, which is a term we only recently came across during preparations for the 8th International Narrative Therapy and Community Work Conference which is to be held in Norway this year. Each paper in the first section of this journal has been written by those with insider knowledge of particularly complex experiences. Their perspectives and ideas offer challenges to the field.
Ellen Walnum, who is the author of the lead paper in this issue, is a Norwegian woman with the experience of growing up with a mother who had psychiatric difficulties. She has also had the experience of a mental health crisis. Determined to put these experiences to work for the benefit of others, Ellen is now employed as an Experience Consultant working with professionals, with mothers who have psychiatric difficulties and with their children. Her paper describes some of the key skills involved in the work of Experience Consultants. It also offers a vision for re-thinking mental health services as partnerships built on a combination of ‘professional knowledge’ and ‘experience knowledge’.
The second paper, by Turid Foss, describes the experience of a therapist who experienced psychosis and was hospitalised as a result. Turid’s experiences of her time on the ward have led to her questioning many taken-for-granted practices. This paper is a powerful invitation to all mental health practitioners to think differently about how we respond to those in crisis, to acknowledge the support and care offered between ‘patients’ within psychiatric wards, and to question and dismantle the artificial separation between ‘professionals’ and ‘those who experience mental health difficulties’. It’s also an invitation to health professionals who have experienced psychiatric crises to speak out about these and the learnings which they have brought.
The third paper, by Odd Volden, invites the reader to reconceptualise mental health crises as cultural experiences, to move mental health issues back into the realm of culture and community and in doing so to strengthen some of the valued traditions of our respective cultures. This is a powerful invitation with significant implications.
The journal then changes tack with two papers by authors who have experiences within complex realms of culture and belonging. Sissel Wilmena Daabous conveys ‘Stories of pride and survival: From the Romany people’ and provides ideas for anyone trying to develop ways of working that are culturally appropriate to their own people. And Leonie Simmons, who was born in Vietnam and adopted to an Australian family relates stories of her journey back to the place of her birth. In the process, she deconstructs taken-for-granted ideas about culture, identity, family and home.
A further paper generated from personal and collective experience is by Mary Heath and is titled ‘Up the steep side of the queer learning curve: Some things I’ve learned about sex, gender and sexuality’. It’s likely that readers will never think of sexual or gender identities in quite the same way after reading this piece.
To complete this issue, we have included two papers on the theme of re-thinking formal clinical paperwork and assessment. William Madsen offers a range of ideas and suggestions as to ways of working within traditional structures that support a collaborative clinical practice. While Mim Weber explores constraints, dilemmas and opportunities in relation to ways in which narrative ideas can inform assessment processes in relation to ‘eating disorders’.
This is a journal issue which we hope you will enjoy and also one which we hope will challenge and provoke your thinking and practice.