In the previous two blog posts, I described how research slowly infiltrated my working life to the extent that, for a short while, I was doing little else. This next stage is about how research took over, which was not as bad as it sounds. There were concerned enquiries about my “work-life” balance, enquiries I dismissed conceptually as much as anything else, for until then I had never felt more alive at work than when I did my PhD. I had resolved to delay it until my daughter started secondary school, but the new local mental health day services manager approached the university following the previous research (Bryant et al 2004, 2005). She was setting up a forum for service users and staff and could we, the researchers, be involved? I joined the first forum meeting as a guest. I was aware of the limited conclusions we had drawn from the previous research, as the data were gathered from focus groups, focused on evaluation of existing services. How could collaboration with service users and staff delivering services (not strategic leaders) shape a research design and take findings forward in cycles, exploring and reflecting? This meant doing participatory action research.
There is a tension between participatory action research and formal approval processes: it is easier to get approval for designs that are well defined and constructed, but in participatory research, design is part of the research process (Banks et al 2013). There are many ethical issues to consider when doing participatory research within mental health services. At the time, it worked best to refine the design before obtaining approval, but since then I have supervised similar projects where researchers have gained provisional approval to get started and I think this is advisable. To give an idea of timescales, I attended the first forum meeting in summer 2003, registered for my PhD and got my honorary contract by spring 2004, and had the design agreed and all my formal approvals in place by Autumn 2005. The main data gathering took place from late in 2005 to spring 2007, and then I spent a year writing up. My viva was in July 2008. And yes, it was a part time PhD. As a lecturer, I was nominally allowed one day a week for research and scholarship, which included gathering information for teaching. There were benefits in working with colleagues who had also been through PhDs, and in having time to discuss my ideas with them and with students.
Being a PhD student is a bit special in some people’s eyes, but not everyone’s, and I enjoyed exploring the insider/outsider dynamic as I progressed. I was an occupational therapist who had worked in day services but was now an academic; a mum who had a book on critical ethnography to read while my children had swimming lessons; as a person who had never experienced severe mental health problems but had a PhD turning point after a serious car accident. Initially I struggled to know what was important or relevant. I did not know how to pace myself or manage the routine of supervision, even though I had been supervised as a clinician for years. I really enjoyed gathering the data but getting to grips with the findings was more challenging. In the final months of writing up, it felt like my PhD took over every part of my life which did not involve essential self care for me and the children, or my day job. Right at the end, I went to stay with my parents and spent the weekend eating and sleeping on their sofa, just like a stereotypical student. I would have brought the laundry too, if I could have got organised.
But it was the best thing, doing a PhD. I am envious of occupational therapists now who have the opportunity much earlier in their careers. I relish supervising people through PhDs: it is such a privilege to be able to focus on research, even when balanced with the rest of life. You can read about what I researched in the publications listed below, and in the next blog I’ll explain how the themes of my PhD led to my postdoctoral research.
Banks S, Armstrong A, Carter K, Graham H, Hayward P, Henry A, Holland T, Holmes C, Lee A, McNulty A, Moore N, Nayling N, Stokoe A & Strachan A (2013) Everyday ethics in
community-based participatory research, Contemporary Social Science, 8:3, 263-277
Bryant W (2011) Mental health day services in the UK from 1946 to 1995: an “untidy set of services”. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74 (12) 554-561
Bryant W, Tibbs A, Clark J (2011) Visualising a safe space: the perspective of people using mental health day services. Disability and Society 26 (5) 611-628.
Bryant W, Vacher G, Beresford P, McKay E (2010) The modernisation of mental health day services: participatory action research exploring social networking. Mental Health Review Journal 15 (3), 11-21
Bryant W, Craik C, McKay EA (2005) Perspectives of day and accommodation services for people with enduring mental illness Journal of Mental Health 14(2): 109-120
Bryant W, Craik C, McKay E (2004) Living in a glass house: exploring occupational alienation. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 71(5): 282-289.