Friday, 25 March 2016

Mental Health Conferences and Service User Inclusion

I'm just back from a fantastic conference laid on by the History and Philosophy section of the BPS, and the Critical Psychiatry Network (thanks to Alison Torn at Leeds Trinity University for putting together such a great programme).

Beyond the content of the papers, I was struck by the way that the event recapitulated an ongoing tension evident around the inclusion in academic spaces of "experts by experience". Conferences like this are increasingly attended by people who have experience of using mental health services (a fact which seems essential if "critical" aspirations are ever going to bear serious fruit), but are they always included effectively? 

One attendee noticed a bunching together of service user talks into a single session:

Did this encourage the use of kid gloves with service-user researchers? Or set up an implicit distinction between more and less "professional" research? Rather than dividing presenters up by identity (into service users and professionals, or experts by training and experts by experience), a useful distinction might be between people who are attending a conference with the purpose of presenting research and those who are giving testimony. 

There is nothing about service user produced research that makes me feel inclined to judge it differently than that produced by non-service users. It will be a very good thing for everyone if more research is conducted by people on whom it has a direct bearing, but it is subject to the same scrutiny as research conducted by anyone else.

Service users who deliver testimonials however are doing something very different. Their words are personal and a degree of emotional risk is involved when you disclose intense experiences and give voice to anger. We don't subject this sort of testimony to the same degree of quarrel, nor pore over it in quite the same "academic" manner as we do a theoretical exposition or literature review.

Making a research/testimonial distinction might create greater clarity about what we want service user inclusion to do for conferences (and for service users), because at least two distinct goals seem to be in play. One is that service users be included in mental health research in a way that expands our epistemological horizons and rejects a hierarchy that privileges some researchers over others. The other is for people to be able to speak at such conferences when they may not have the means or the interest to develop research per se, but nonetheless have something important to say.

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