Participatory research across mental health and migrant justice
Participatory research means including survivors and people with lived experience in the design, implementation and dissemination of the research. This could involve working with survivors to define the research question, write the funding application, collect the data, analyse the results, write the report, and present on findings. In participatory research, participants and survivors can become co-researchers or peer researchers.
What are my experiences of participatory mental health and migration research?
I conducted two participatory action research projects on mental health and wellbeing with an Iranian and an Afghan community organisation in London. It was a mixed start. To recruit peer researchers, we held music and mental health community events. These were fun to organise, and I quickly found people who were keen to help with the research. However, as we started the participatory research, I found that my identity as a second-generation Iranian was continually scrutinised. These criticisms made it difficult for me to be as committed as I wanted to be. Yet, they also helped me reflect on how I could have prepared for the partnership better by improving my Persian language skills and cultural knowledge.
Things generally got better as time passed and the relationships that I built grew stronger. With the Iranian community organisation, we ended up researching how to improve personal development in the Iranian diaspora. We conducted focus groups and a community survey. We wrote a research report with key recommendations. We then worked together to secure funding to put the recommendations into action. With the Afghan community organisation, we conducted a preliminary survey on the research people wanted to see. This survey, and the relationships built through the participatory work, eventually grew into a co-created guide for mental health practitioners working with Afghan sanctuary seekers. You can also read about my experiences, reflections and recommendations in more detail in the December 2022 issue of the New Sociological Perspectives journal.
Why use a participatory approach in mental health and migration research?
Migration and mental health research can be an unequal process with researchers examining the intimate details of a survivor’s life. Researchers might also ask difficult, potentially distressing questions about the asylum process or mental health services. They might not have any personal experience of the issues they are asking about and might come across as voyeuristic. Coming from powerful academic institutions, their knowledge might feel more important than what a participant has to offer. Researchers might also be partnering with migrant and mental health charities that treat survivors like victims and don’t recognise people’s agency.
Participatory research can challenge the power inequalities associated with mental health research. It aims to provide survivors and peer researchers the knowledge, language and power to influence, own and control the research process. Participatory approaches centre and value the knowledge inherent in people’s lived experience, promoting agency and confidence. They focus on what peer researchers identify as important, and are tailored to meet accessibility needs. Participatory approaches, like participatory action research, also aim to take action against oppressive structures and can work well with migrant justice campaigns.
What are the risks of participatory research?
Compared to standard research approaches, participatory research requires more time and commitment from survivors and peer researchers. In a community and charity setting this can lead to resources being diverted from essential services such as helping people with their legal cases or providing language classes. Where participatory research projects are properly funded, peer researchers may not be paid for their time and feel exploited. This is particularly damaging for people with precarious migration statuses who might already be working in exploitative situations. In these circumstances, participatory approaches might also feel tokenistic. They might be unable to provide the training, space and trust needed for survivors and peer researchers to meaningfully contribute and influence the research.
Why do I choose to do this kind of work?
Participatory research in mental health is personal. It means be vulnerable to criticism not only from those around you, but from yourself. It makes you question why you are doing research and whether you are the right person to do it in the first place. But it also has incredible benefits, making research more meaningful, impactful and rigorous. It can build long-term relationships that help you grow as a person and set the scene for a lifetime of rich research. In my participatory work, it’s helped me accept my second-generation identity, reconnect with my cultural heritage, understand and make links with the Iranian diaspora, and improve my Persian language skills.
Migrant and mental health justice is about recognising and challenging institutional oppressions, and centring survivor views, resilience and agency. Participatory research approaches support this work because they generate the knowledge needed to identify and name oppressions, ask meaningful questions that lead to action, and are led by people with lived experience.
Sohail is a Lecturer in Global Health at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School. He leads the anti-colonial Stolen Tools journal, hosts the Qualitative Open Mic podcast and has recently co-developed a guide for mental health practitioners working with Afghan sanctuary seekers.
You can find out more about his work at www.SohailJ.com.