When the personal meets the professional

The Synergi Partipatory Action Research (PAR) project focuses on ethnic minority people’s experiences of severe mental illness and how this relates to broader ethnic inequalities, by examining their life stories. The project uses participatory action methodology to seek understanding of human experience and involves co-production methods and comprehensive reflection to create change and improve outcomes.

In the participatory element of the project, five co-researchers with lived experience help to enhance knowledge of the complexities and nuances, especially through reflexivity. As one of the co-researchers, I am aware of how our individual and collective lived experiences are key in capturing and reflecting the lived experience narratives of ethnic minority people to make much-needed socially responsible recommendations regarding the role of ethnic inequities in mental illness.

I chose to be involved in the Synergi PAR project because of my increasing interest in the role that culture and ethnicity play in severe mental illness. My interest was initially a response to clinical observations through working with both ‘vulnerable’ young people and adults.

In this context, I began to notice the over-representation of black and South Asian people in macro-level social forces, such as children’s residential homes, psychiatric services, youth offending services, school inclusion departments, adult supported accommodation and auxiliary services, including housing. All of which made me particularly curious about the trajectories of the young people from ethnic minority backgrounds I had worked with.

I wanted to turn my curiosity into something tangible and active, which led me to study for the MSc in Global and Cultural Perspectives of Mental Health Care at Queen Mary University of London and Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in 2017. This programme was magical in that it compounded and enhanced all of my existing knowledge in mental health, while at the same time made me challenge everything I previously knew and was learning on the course.

For my MSc dissertation, I conducted a systematic review on the Impact of childhood adversity on adult psychopathology in Black and South Asian global populations. My review, based on ecological frameworks, suggested the black population appear to experience early and cumulative adversity, including racism, deprivation and low socio-economic status, to a greater degree than their non-clack counterparts.

Given the evidence that cause, course and outcome of psychopathology are influenced by cultural factors, my review recommended that future research should examine the role of racism as a harmful psychosocial stressor in the aetiology of severe mental illness, specifically psychosis, in the black population.

Being able to apply for the Synergi PAR project felt like an evolving extension of what I had learned and experienced during my studies. The project also allows me to pursue my career in qualitative research while working on a topic that resonates both personally and professionally.

My personal experience of mental health includes a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in 2011. I experience quite debilitating, lengthy periods of depression with shorter periods of being a high functioning hypomanic. I also have friends and family with mental health difficulties of varying degrees and nature. I am fortunate that my personal experiences can navigate and compound my contributions to the PAR project as a co-researcher with lived experience.

In addition to the gratitude of having an opportunity to do something I love, it is fascinating to work with Professor James Nazroo, Dr Maria Haarmans and Dr Dharmi Kapadia, as well as Dr James Rhodes, who has since temporarily left the project, because of the rich expertise that they bring to the project. They are all motivating and inspiring, which is because they genuinely care about the work they do and their commitment to create better outcomes for society.

The four co-researchers I work with are dynamic, intelligent and creative. I relish their contributions and input to what we do and aim to achieve. Through co-production, I have learned new technical skills, such as conducting the Biographical Narrative Interview Method (BNIM) so that I capture the most relevant data that pertains to our research questions.

I am also continuing to learn that mental illness transcends psychiatry and nosological constraints, and there is so much more to understand about the role that culture and ethnicity plays in mental health so that the nuances can be unravelled as to why the cause, course and treatment of mental illness is disparate for ethnic minority people.

My next step is to study for a PhD on The iatrogenesis of psychiatric inpatient care for severe mental illness in minority ethnicities. I am at the very early stages of the PhD process, but I aim to start my research in 2021 as I work towards a career in academic research, doing something that is viscerally important to me.

Sonja Osahan is a co-researcher on the Synergi Participatory Action Research project, based at the University of Manchester.