Recovery College: Learning to heal and grow

June 5, 2023
In spring 2020 – as the pandemic was shutting down in-person learning around the world – CMHA Toronto collaborated with Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences to take a curriculum of mental health and recovery-related educational courses online.  

Peer specialist Ari Derin, left, with a client at CMHA Toronto’s Routes Community Centre

Ari Derin jumped at the chance to join the facilitation team in its early days. “I knew that I would be facilitating some pretty interesting psycho-educational groups,” he said.  

A former client of Routes, a community centre run by CMHA Toronto that offers a place for peer connection among those with personal experience of mental health and recovery, Ari went on to earn a social service worker diploma and a Bachelor of Social Work. Since starting as a volunteer peer facilitator for CMHA Toronto’s Recovery College, he has since joined the organization in a full-time peer specialist role based in the Routes community centre. 

Ari says that as a person now “on the other side,” his lived experience gives him insight and empathy with course participants.   

We have pretty great discussions. The personal experience piece is really something that makes the course come alive. Everybody draws from their own experience and sharing that in a group is powerful. I think it inspires other people to tackle whatever it is that they're tackling,” Ari said. 

A recovery-based model takes shape

The “recovery college” model, originally developed in the United Kingdom in 2009, has gained increasing traction in Canada. Although local CMHA organizations have implemented recovery colleges across Canada, as of early 2020 CMHA Toronto did not have one of its own. 

Whether called learning hubs, thrive institutes, discovery colleges, or HOPE (Helping Others through Peer Education) learning centres, recovery colleges use education to advance recovery and promote hope, empowerment, possibility, and connection through peer-driven, strength-based mental health and wellbeing courses. The curriculum is wide-ranging but courses are all grounded in helping participants develop skills and behaviours that strengthen the social determinants of health. 

We offered five courses in the first term just to see how things would be received and get used to the technology,” said Kerri Glover, CMHA Toronto’s Pathways East team lead and now Lead, Pathways, Recovery College and Holiday Gift Program.  

Now in its fourth year, CMHA Toronto’s Recovery College has grown its curriculum from its initial five courses to a catalogue of more than 50: from two-week sessions like Budgeting Basics to the 12-week, two-semester Building Resiliency course. 

Recovery College builds on CMHA Toronto’s Pathways social recreation programming and resource centre, which saw drop-ins of up to 120 people a day prior to the pandemic. 
Kerri explains that CMHA Toronto’s Recovery College, like those that have been established in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and in the U.S., are like “any college program, but the courses are free, and they're all about recovery and mental health.” Courses are delivered twice yearly, in spring and fall, by Kerri and other CMHA Toronto subject matter experts, and – a critical piece of the model – CMHA Toronto client facilitators who lead sessions with their peers. 

A structured foundation with room for innovation

Like most other Recovery Colleges, CMHA Toronto follows the CHIME framework – Connection, Hope, Identity, Meaning and Empowerment – to inform program development and outcome measurement. However, there is also latitude for innovation, customization and collaboration.

CMHA Toronto sits on a committee with approximately 20 other Recovery Colleges from across Canada, which allows them to share materials and gain insights into best practice. This is one of the reasons Kerri and her manager, Laura Monastero, have been able to build the program so quickly from a standing start in 2020.

“What CMHA Toronto’s Recovery College does is look at Toronto's needs specifically, because what you do in Winnipeg might be very different than what you need to do in Toronto. The beauty of the Recovery College model is that the organization can take it and make it theirs. The framework is there but there is lots of leeway to modify to meet the unique needs of our clients,” Laura said.

A sample course calendar from the Feb – May 2023 term.

CMHA Toronto's unique differences

Some of the customizations that CMHA Toronto has introduced to its Recovery College stem from needs that arose during the pandemic as learning moved online. For example, Kerri explains upfront that participants don't have to have their camera on or even have a camera: they can take part using a landline. “We don’t want technology to be a barrier,” she explains. “I say right off the bat that just because you can't see the presentation, doesn't mean you won’t get full benefit from the presentation. We will speak to every single word on the slides and you will not miss a thing if you don't have the technology.”

Every participant receives a course summary, or syllabus, ahead of time, outlining what topics will be covered. But Kerri has customized how she delivers weekly summaries and presentation materials in response to client feedback.

“Many people said that they can't focus on taking notes while listening to what I’m saying; that was a big takeaway. So I went through every single course and created a summary for each week. At the beginning of each course I ask people how they would like to have the summaries: at the end, or after each week, or before each week. A lot of people want the paper copy to make notes on, so I will print it and get their address and mail it to them,” Kerri said. “If there are 10 people in a course and all of them want something different, then I make those adjustments for individuals because I recognize everybody learns and is at different levels.”

Another difference in how CMHA Toronto’s Recovery College works is that people can take courses as many times as they want, an approach that “has proven to be extremely effective. We work with people [for whom] taking in information might be okay one day but not the next, especially with someone who has an illness that affects their cognition. You want to be able to say, ‘hey, you took a pause, take it again’,” Laura said.

“Everybody's pathway to recovery is different, so every course is different. [We] attempt to wrap the course around the individual, not make them fit into a box.”
Other touches that Kerri has introduced are designed to recognize the participant’s achievement and underline that these courses are like any other college course of study. We give everyone a certificate of completion at the end, with the CMHA Toronto logo. If a participant wants to frame it, we print it and mail it to them. It's that little extra step where [participants] feel a sense of completion, a sense that ‘I've earned this’,” said Kerri.

Participation builds community

One of the most important elements of CMHA Toronto’s Recovery College is that it builds community. This is accomplished in many small and large ways, but fundamentally is a product of the class’s own participation.

Nandy* is an avid participant in Recovery College courses which, he says, were especially helpful during the long pandemic lockdown. “It was good to have a laptop computer and a way to stay connected with Pathways,” he said. Courses on gratitude, building boundaries, and anxiety have given him insight and learnings which applies to his daily life, and have helped him “live a better life and know how to cope with situations that we may face.”

* pseudonym used to protect client confidentiality

For Sal, another Recovery College participant, the courses on resiliency have been especially meaningful. Like Nandy, he has appreciated the sense of community and opportunity to gain and share experiences which, he says “are truly cathartic.” Recovery College has been a haven for Sal and, he says, for “many of our beloved peers [who] are or have been in self-isolation for a long time, which can further aggravate mental illness.”

Sal calls the Recovery College courses “a gift … where we can learn to be our own therapist and take care of ourselves, learn to solve our problems, [and develop] care and compassion and all the wonderful virtues that are necessary for living a loving and kind life.”

“It's like an awakening and whenever there is a situation that is similar to our own experience we can learn how to cope with the situation. It's a community.”

Kerri echoes Sal’s and Nandy’s thoughts about the important role Recovery College courses played for everyone – facilitators and participants – during the early stages of the pandemic. “When we first started this, a lot of people, including myself, were struggling. In those early days, when we had five or six clients joining, everyone was saying ‘I don't know what I would do if I didn't have this in my day. It's given me hope.’ We were able to talk about how we were feeling during the pandemic and those discussions were extremely helpful to all of us, I think,” said Kerri.

Laura notes that for many participants, Recovery College courses provide value over and above the actual course content. Some participants have gone on to engage in other CMHA Toronto volunteer opportunities, such as becoming members of the Client and Family Advisory Committee – one of the crucial and unique ways to ensure that the client voice is included in CMHA Toronto decisions, communications, and program planning.

Laura shared that one participant “would come to those committee meetings being able to say, ‘I've taken this course at the Recovery College’ and it empowered him to feel like he was on the same playing level as everybody else. It really helps people feel like they have a purpose, because they are going to school, they are bettering themselves. I can see how people are so proud that they are participating in these courses. People will say it helps them be a better brother, a better parent, a better aunt. These are the kinds of things you hear and it’s quite powerful.”

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