Presenting our 'Public Life Matters' research in Split, Croatia

Our Peer Researcher Gordon Johnston recently travelled to Split in Croatia to present findings from our 'Public Life Matters' research at the 7th European Conference on Mental Health. Here, he shares some of his experiences from the event. 

I was lucky enough to travel to Croatia last week and attend the annual European Conference on Mental Health. As well as learning a great deal listening to colleagues from across Europe and beyond, I was very pleased to be able to contribute to the exchange of knowledge with my own presentation.

Over 2017 and 2018 the Public Life Matters project sought to examine the exclusion of people with lived experience of mental health conditions from civic and public life. We found that half of those we surveyed wished to increase their involvement, which we described as untapped potential. We felt we had identified a source of enthusiasm and expertise that could greatly add to the public life of our local and national communities.

The project was funded by the Big Lottery Fund through a body called DRILL (Disability Research into Independent Living and Learning) and was managed by a partnership of organisations. The Lived Experience Research Collective, a consortium of peer researchers, undertook the research, working in collaboration with VOX (Voices of eXperience), the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland and Strathcyde University’s Centre for Health Policy. Notably, all of the researchers in the Collective, including myself, have lived experience of mental health conditions.

Our work began with a survey, which 249 people from all across Scotland responded to. We analysed the results and used them as the basis for more detailed discussions in six focus groups held in various parts of the country. Finally we brought our quantitative and qualitative data together into a detailed report.

We found that the most sought after roles were volunteering (49%) and being an activist in charitable and campaigning groups (41%). Almost a quarter (22%) were interested in becoming a trustee or director of a charity or community organisation, while as many as 10% aspired to stand for election to public office as a local councillor, MSP or MP.

However we also identified a number of barriers which prevented the people surveyed from meeting their potential. Stress and/ or anxiety were the most common followed by lack of self-confidence. Our focus groups showed that a great deal of these feelings result from stigma and particularly from the common belief that the contribution of someone with lived experience would not be welcomed or valued in public life. This shows that change is required and that civic groups must become more open and welcoming and more aware of mental health issues.

When asked what could help them to become more involved, 60% cited more accessible information about the possibilities open to them and how to apply, over half (55%) wanted better peer support, closely followed by more training (50%) and mentoring (37%). It is also worth noting that participants were keen not just to be involved in mental health organisations – they wanted to play a full role in all of the various organisations that make up community life.

In Split I presented in a themed session on involvement along with three other speakers: two from Finland and one from Australia. I explained the history of the Research Collective, discussed the research we had carried out and shared our results and conclusions. It went down well, with a lot of interest shown.

 

Questions and comments were made on the method of consensus working within the Collective, the difference between peer and "traditional" researchers, the distinction between formal and informal volunteering roles and the strength of stigma as a barrier to participation. Similar issues are prevalent in other countries too, it seems.

 

Public Life Matters is an important project with a key finding that a large proportion of people with lived experience of mental ill health in Scotland wish to increase their involvement in civic and public life. No only would this help to tackle social isolation and be good for individual mental health, it also represents a potential source of enthusiasm and expertise to our society. I was very glad to take this message to an international forum.

 

Full copies of the Untapped Potential report can be downloaded from the Collective’s web site at http://experienceresearch.org.uk/ or obtained by e-mail from [email protected].