Synergi Collaborative Centre

The Synergi Collaborative Centre is an award-winning national five-year initiative to help eradicate ethnic inequalities in the experience of severe mental illness through championing systems change, new science, creative inclusion, collaborative leadership and co-production. 

Synergi worked to forge solutions in collaboration with black and minoritised people with lived experience of mental distress, carers, commissioners, policymakers and politicians. 

Launched in 2017, Synergi was funded with a strategic award of £1,245,000, the largest ever allocated by Lankelly Chase, and was a partnership between the University of Manchester, University of Oxford and Words of Colour Productions.

We have been talking about mental health for years and it’s getting worse. Which is why my hopes for the Synergi Collaborative Centre are big hopes. There is a real need at this point to draw on community expertise to advocate, speak up and offer innovation and solutions, and to bring them into the mainstream. We have the solutions, and we need the system to hear and understand them.

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs.

The Brief

Synergi wanted to better understand and tackle ethnic inequalities in the risk and consequences of severe mental distress among black and minoritised people. 

Central to Synergi’s work was examining how the multiple disadvantages faced by black and minoritised people, as a result of their ‘racialised’ identities, shaped these inequalities. This required exposing the traumatic impact of structural, institutional and interpersonal racism on their care, treatment and experience in mental health systems.

Synergi was commissioned by Lankelly Chase to:

Create and curate a knowledge hub on ethnic inequalities in mental health and related systems.
Bring together the full range of stakeholders through models of co-production, and co-curation of knowledge, to enable solutions to be explored and implemented.
Centre and amplify lived experience narratives.
Use creative, artistic digital and evidence-based platforms and approaches to share these narratives.
Become a focal point for action, leading to systems change regarding ethnic inequalities in mental health services.

The Challenge

Synergi launched against a backdrop of longstanding ethnic inequalities, including the fact that compared to the majority population:

  • a diagnosis of schizophrenia is five to six times more likely in Black African people and Black Caribbean people, and nearly three times more likely in South Asian people. 
  • As for detention rates among the civil population, Black Caribbean people and Black African people are three times more likely to be detained.

Of great concern was the over-representation of black and minoritized people with severe mental illness in psychiatric institutions, and the coercive, harsh (rather than therapeutic) forms of treatment they are exposed to. A picture that hasn’t changed in 50 years.

The timing of the Synergi Collaborative Centre is particularly important as there is longstanding concern over key issues such as access to relevant services, social exclusion and social cohesion nationally. Synergi’s work is also necessary amid the groundswell of public and political interest, and an acknowledgement of the complex cluster of historical issues surrounding severe mental illness and ethnic inequalities.
Marcia Willis Stewart QC (Hon) and Synergi’s inaugural Advisory Board Chair

Also, curating evidence around the narratives of black and minoritised people with lived experience of severe mental distress and the impact of racism, ethnic inequalities and multiple disadvantage, was not widely owned.

  • Closing performance - Michelle Scally Clarke
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The work

As a founding partner, Words of Colour was responsible for the project’s strategic communications, branding, marketing, media, digital initiatives, stakeholder engagement, co-production, new project innovation and mobilising constituencies into action. Joy Francis led this work as Synergi’s Co-Director.

A significant amount of the work went on behind the scenes. This included establishing regional collaborations, building trust amid historic and persistent failings to help transform mindsets and create connecting ecosystems in Greater Manchester, London, Birmingham and Leeds and transitioning them into national alliances.

Synergi provided a strong evidence base to inform its understanding and to enable the project to engage in service reform, including an award-winning approach to capturing biographical narratives through the Participatory Action Research (PAR) project.

Based in Birmingham, PAR was used to capture the in-depth perspectives of service users, carers, communities, and the agencies and clinicians providing health and social care. 

Live and digital events, featuring poets and artists, and the use of film and podcasts, in partnerships with arts and heritage institutions allowed lived experience narratives to reach a wider audience and be centred.

Original research and widely circulated briefing papers were produced for shared learning nationally in statutory, NGO and community sectors.


The outcome

Over five years, Synergi generated an extensive list of outcomes, some of which are still being finalised. 

Below is a sample.

  • Publication of 10 academic papers in leading journals.
  • Publication of six widely disseminated briefing papers with recommendations for change. 
  • Launch of the award-winning Synergi Participatory Action Research (PAR) Project. The first of its kind in the UK, and based in Manchester, the project aimed to inform policy development by addressing the gaps in understanding of the life histories of people who experience profound disadvantages. The project is co-produced with five black and minoritised academic researchers with lived experience of severe mental distress. Full findings to be published in summer 2022.
  • Launch of Creative Spaces, Synergi’s systems-intervention disruptive programme which inspired the formation of Synergi-Leeds in 2020. For the first time ever, recurrent funding was awarded by the Leeds Commissioner at £100,000 per year to centre the Synergi model in Leeds, hosted by by Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Leeds City Council and Forum Central in collaboration with a range of partners, including Inspire North, Touchstone and LeedsGate, and carers and experts by experience.
  • Launch of the UK’s first National Pledge to reduce ethnic inequalities in mental health systems in 2020. Signed by 33 senior mental health leaders, honouring seven pledge commitments, 28 Pledge Makers submit a public biannual public progress report on their performance.
  • Launch of the Synergi National Pledge Alliance to mobilise mental health leaders to collaborate, show leadership and be accountable to eradicate ‘unacceptable’ ethnic inequalities in mental health systems. 
  • Synergi helped secure additional funding for Synergi Phase 2 after a nine-month succession planning process with stakeholders and collaborators, which led to Lankelly Chase to award £1.5 million over three years for an ambitious programme of work focusing on the intersection of racial justice and mental health. Synergi 2 will be hosted by Synergi partner NSUN and held by a governance board, including Synergi’s Creative Spaces partner Catalyst 4 Change.


NESTA/Observer New Radicals 2018 Award
Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) Community Engagement Award 2018 (Synergi Photovoice project)
Judges’ Prize, Best Poster Presentation, the BPS Division of Clinical Psychology Annual Conference 2020 (Synergi PAR project)
Finalist, QMUL Engagement and Enterprise Awards 2019 (Synergi Photovoice project)
Synergi Photovoice exhibition, London

Synergi Photovoice Project

I really wanted to talk about inequality through my photographs and words. We know from our experience, traditions and cultures how [there are] other ways of dealing with this experience. It’s amazing that this project is one such vehicle to address that particular inequality.
Manisha. Participant, London