Researchers explore benefit of co-design communities of practice

Co-design communities of practice in community-based mental health and rural suicide prevention

by Lia Bryant, Bridget McFarland and Jane Andrew

Accepted 21 February 2024

What's the issue?

Co-design is becoming increasingly valued as a way of embedding lived and living experience of mental health concerns and suicide in mental health systems, services and practice. Co-design of mental health support interventions often takes place in spaces ‘owned' by academia or clinical practices and this can have a strong effect on who gets to decide what can and cannot be said, asked, suggested and included and who determines what can count as legitimate knowledge.

There is a gap in the research for examples of the community as a site for developing new mental health supports through co-design processes.

Co-design describes a participatory approach to designing research or interventions, in which community stakeholders are treated as equal collaborators in the design process. Including a co-design model in the development of mental health and suicide prevention initiatives and services can help to develop and deliver more effective and suitable models of care and prevention that meet the needs of service users.

This research points to the value of an outer circle of support in co-design practice, such as the inclusion of influencers, artists, bridge builders, testers and other helpful people that can aid others in expressing themselves. When these supports join with a core group of lived and living experience representatives who are part of a co-design process, we then create a ‘community of practice’.

Communities of practice are informal social learning systems that involve participants whose membership is defined by a shared commitment to engaging with the co-design process.1 Communities of practice can support engagement and expression between mental health and suicide prevention professionals, researchers, and lived and living experience representatives, supporting growth and capability for learning.

In this paper, researchers highlight the findings from two Australian case studies that used a community of practice co-design approach undertaken away from clinical and service spaces, to develop community–based mental health and suicide prevention initiatives.

What was done?

Researchers drew on two case studies in which mental health co-design work was undertaken to create innovative approaches to community-based mental health and suicide prevention. Both case studies were Australian-based.

The community of practice in both case studies featured volunteers comprising of students, creatives and academics. The aim of having diverse involvement was to support expression of experience and capturing messages.

The first case study of community-based co-design for mental health was situated in Match Studio, a co-design focused hub which features interdisciplinary collaboration between students from multiple disciplines, design practitioners, industry, government and the not-for-profit sector. ‘Beats 4 Wu’ was one of the projects conducted in Match Studio and was featured in the case study. Beats 4 Wu explores and supports music therapy in promoting well-being and mental health. The Beats for Wu community of practice co-design created a space for all involved to embrace a shared experience by removing typical roles from the process such as ‘user’ and ‘designer’, encouraging freedom of expression by all.

The second case study was drawn from a large national community-based participatory action research project in which place-based rural communities in three study sites were engaged in co-designing community-based suicide.

What was found?

The community of practices featured in both case studies provided opportunity for growth, healing and expression by those with lived and living experience.

For people with lived and living experience to participate in a co-design community of practice, a level of trust, understanding, care and safety needed to occur. This was be created through:

  • offering generous listening that creates emotional safety
  • affirming people’s experience and their accounts of that experience
  • providing meaningful opportunities for engagement designed to affirm people’s strengths and resilience.

The creative mediums featured in the case studies such as film and art provided those with lived and living experience opportunity to express themselves in other ways besides written or verbal communications.

The films developed as part of the rural-based case study helped to affirm co-design participants experiences and were seen as meaningful opportunities to explore the participants strengths and resilience. These films also were able to validate the experiences of others who had a relatable mental health journey.

Men in farming who have viewed the films and other creative resources produced in the rural case study shared how it resonated with them in ways that normalized the mental health and helped them to engage in conversations about their mental health.

Why are the findings important?

A community of practice approach to co-design can foster increased participation, empowerment and shared learning. Capturing lived and living experiences through creative mediums as part of a community of practice co-design approach can increase understanding of lived and living experiences by the mental health professionals and researchers involved, and the wider community.



Arastoopour Irgens, G., S. Hirsch, D. Herro, and M. Madison. 2023. “Analyzing a Teacher and Researcher Co-Design Partnership through the Lens of Communities of Practice.” Teaching and Teacher Education 121: 103952.