I’ve been a clinician in mental health for many (many) years I have heard tales of woe and distress. They have often been so devastating, and at the same time, inspirational as one hears about the efforts people make to overcome the most extreme situations. I have always felt a sense of privilege at being allowed into these stories and as a researcher this privilege feels somehow even more intense.
I’m recruiting for a research project looking at how people create networks to help improve and manage their mental health. No sooner had the posters gone out than people were mailing me to take part. Never has recruitment been so effortless in the history of research I suspect. It feels extraordinarily validating to be met with such enthusiasm. The participants can clearly see a benefit to them from taking part and there’s no financial reward involved.
The people volunteering for the project hope to gain some assistance from the clinicians they trust. But from a researcher they expect nothing except perhaps the opportunity to help others in the future.
These often inspirational stories can be instrumental in the personal development of the researcher; providing not only data for the studies we are engaged in, but also food for thought for the personal issues that may be preoccupying us at the time of interview. Gifting us with vicarious learning via our volunteers’ experiences.
Whilst in academia we may consider ourselves as the holders of knowledge with long strings of qualifications after our names, the traditional role of expert and learner (or clinician and patient) is reversed. So in a research situation the researcher is in a position of not knowing about the participant, and the participant has the personal knowledge that the researcher wants.
This role reversal creates an equality. It allows us to gather deeply sensitive information which may not even be readily shared with the clinicians involved in their care. It’s particularly true in the world of mental health where the constant threat of the Mental Health Act (potential detention in a hospital) tempers any interaction between clinician and patient. The traditionally paternalistic nature of healthcare is suspended in the research interview. It allows an honesty that would be most advantageous in the clinical encounter.