As part of our online conversation #MentalHealthResearchMatters, we spoke to Yasmin about anti-racist mental health research. Yasmin is part of the Student team at SMarTeN network and a member of the Mental Health Research Matters Steering Group. She is a lived-experience researcher and passionate advocate for student wellbeing and the role of anti-racism in research – a crucial element of creating inclusive research that tackles inequalities. Here’s what she had to say:
“When I conduct research myself, it’s always been important to me to look at things from the perspective of the participant or co-researcher with lived experience,” Yasmin says. “Working with a group of Muslim people recently, I knew a video call was the right approach so they could see me and know that we shared a cultural background.”
“When I conduct research myself, it’s always been important to me to look at things from the perspective of the participant or co-researcher with lived experience,”
The importance of a shared cultural language is one of the reasons Yasmin wants to see people from diverse backgrounds included in mental health research from the very beginning – from project inception through to dissemination and impact measuring. Mental health research cannot be applied universally, and Yasmin’s work as a lived experience researcher has held that fact at its core.
Yasmin has been working in public and patient involvement (PPI) since 2020 and has worked with McPin’s Young People’s Network. With an undergraduate degree in chemistry, she came to mental health research after a period of her own mental health challenges. She sits on the SMaRteN student research team focusing on student mental health in higher education. SMaRTeN is one of the eight UKRI-funded mental health research networks formed in 2018 to address some of the most pressing mental health challenges that we face today.
“Having had some lived experience of mental health challenges myself, I found it really difficult to access mental health support that was really helpful for me. I didn’t find that services really understood my background or my culture,” Yasmin shares. As a passionate advocate for student mental health and well-being, her research has led her to examine other interventions beyond the often-used CBT.
“Having had some lived experience of mental health challenges myself, I found it really difficult to access mental health support that was really helpful for me. I didn’t find that services really understood my background or my culture,”
Yasmin goes on to say: “There has been research into mental health that has been applied to people of colour but it doesn’t really translate, because there are many different cultural expectations and experiences that make up that individual.” Working through challenges in a space where your peers just get it is so important. Yasmin’s message is clear – mental health solutions and interventions are not universal and their widespread application often lacks nuance and deep thought.
How could mental health research be more inclusive and anti-racist?
When you’re working alongside those bringing their lived experience to the table, researchers must create an environment where participants feel comfortable sharing potentially difficult parts of their life. Yasmin says those from minoritised backgrounds can often feel distrustful of the medical or research sector. Although there is a long way to go, Yasmin’s experience has highlighted a few ways that trust can be built between the researcher and lived experience researcher or participant.
Good Practice 101
- The language around research can be confusing so lay out the research aims in an accessible way.
- Remove jargon from the project materials.
- Ensure that the study’s intended impact on the community is clear from the outset.
- It’s important to keep in touch with your lived experience panel or group.
- Let them know when the results have been compiled.
- Talk to them about how you can collaboratively bring about positive change in their community.
- Most importantly, listen and take on any feedback you receive.
Breaking down barriers to participation
For researchers working with older members of ethnic minority groups, make sure your literature is translated. Budget for a translator to be present at focus groups and interviews. Yasmin talks about the feeling of safety created when sharing experiences in your first language: “Even with people whose second language is English, and they can speak it well, it still might be easier for people to speak about their mental health in their own language, it’s the one they’re most comfortable expressing themselves in.”
“Even with people whose second language is English, and they can speak it well, it still might be easier for people to speak about their mental health in their own language, it’s the one they’re most comfortable expressing themselves in.”
Better yet, Yasmin says, if a researcher is not from the background they’re researching, train peer researchers from the communities you would like to work with and co-produce your study with them. Researchers outside of those communities will not have a sufficient level of awareness about the specific challenges causing mental health issues in those ethnic minority groups.
Working closely with the people directly impacted by the research’s outcomes is paramount. A researcher should not treat co-production or working with lived experience groups as a box-ticking exercise. Yasmin says that lived experience panels can tell what the researcher’s motivations are, and that lack of authenticity only erodes trust even more.
Being mindful of the physical barriers to participation is key – don’t expect people to come to you, meet them where they are most comfortable. That could be mosques, temples, or community centres, for example. If you are working closely with the people you’d like to interview a community from the early stages of your project you can find out more about these barriers to participation and put steps in place to make sure people’s needs are met.
Being an anti-racist researcher
To embrace anti-racism as a researcher then you should look to the organisations you’re partnering with, Yasmin suggests. Have they shown a commitment to undoing structural racism within their institution? She cautions that having an equality, diversity and inclusion policy does not make an organisation anti-racist. If a researcher is working with lived experience researchers from communities they are not a member of, Yasmin would like to see them acknowledging structural racism in research right from the get-go. Racism plays a huge part in mental health challenges for people of colour.
In Yasmin’s research work she ensures she recognises the huge impact living in a racist society can have on an individual’s mental health, saying that it is really important that participants feel comfortable in speaking honestly about their lived experience. She goes on to stress how vital it is that researchers start their own personal research before bringing lived experience researchers together. Yasmin advises: “Say you’re doing mental health research with young Muslims, you need to acknowledge the impact of Prevent on students, how heavily surveilled young people have felt. So read up on that. Understand what those issues are, and vocalise them early on, so that participants feel safe to explore them and the impact they’ve had on their mental health with you.”
“Say you’re doing mental health research with young Muslims, you need to acknowledge the impact of Prevent on students, how heavily surveilled young people have felt. So read up on that. Understand what those issues are, and vocalise them early on, so that participants feel safe to explore them and the impact they’ve had on their mental health with you.”
“It can be quite triggering being involved in mental health research, more generally, because sometimes people can say quite challenging things in group sessions,” Yasmin says. In her capacity as a research/lived experience researcher, she believes safeguarding should be built into all projects involving lived experience researchers. Brief your participants about what they can expect from a session, check in with them after and provide peer support.
Ultimately, not all researchers are coming from the same place of understanding and research findings often cannot be applied to everyone in our society. That’s why we need to diversify the mental health research sector, whilst also practising anti-racist research. Yasmin encourages researchers to go a little deeper into their research, embrace nuance and actively pursue their own anti-racist education.
- Follow Yasmin on Twitter or Instagram
- Find out more about Inclusive Mental Health Research That Tackles Inequalities on the Mental Health Research Matters Website, including examples of anti-racist mental health research from the UKRI-funded mental health research networks.
- Find out more about The McPin Foundation.
- Find out more about SMaRteN.