Seven years ago I started my undergraduate degree in politics and international relations with a view to working internationally in the civil service. Skip forward to October 2021 and I had just started my part-time PhD in Primary Health Care.
As I begin my PhD journey I am collaborating with The Mental Elf to share bimonthly thoughts and reflections. This thinking is based in my multiple roles and identities as a lived experience practitioner in mental health, a social and political scientist, and as someone who is a mental health advocate belonging to a minoritised and often under-served ethnic group.
In my first post, I will attempt to map-out how I have found myself pursuing a part-time PhD whilst working as a lived experience consultant and running a not-for-profit organisation.
This jump would previously have been inconceivable as someone who considers themselves a long-term planner. However, I have been lucky to find myself in a space where my academic, personal, and professional experiences have aligned.
I have always been fascinated with how power manifests in our life experiences to enable some at the expense of others. Beyond interpersonal relationships, I have been interested by how power inequalities are latently reproduced in language, discourse, and in the very frameworks with which we ‘make meaning’ of the world around us.
At undergraduate and graduate level I tussled with how social identities and divisions are formed through relational hierarchies which describe the ‘strong and weak’, the ‘modern and traditional’, as well as the ‘safe and dangerous’. My social science dissertations to-date have focused on how Sikh masculinities and foreign policy identities are constructed through digital media.
This research showed me the power of words, language, and imagery in shaping our imagined and practical engagement with the world. Quickly, I realised that these hierarchies, which were used to champion some at the expense of many, were deeply intertwined with ideas such as gender, race, disability, class, and sexuality.
Community mental health advocacy
Curiously enough I found my studies in social and political sciences to be an important safe-haven as I first experienced my own mental health challenges. As the first person in my family to leave Birmingham to go to university I faced a range of difficulties which compounded with me feeling isolated from friends and family, unable to interact in social situations and feeling constantly overwhelmed.
These challenges still stay with me but their intensity varies. However, I was able to access important support at the time through my housemates who provided a safe and open space for sharing our vulnerabilities. With them I learnt more about the feelings I was experiencing and how they limited me from living my life how I wanted to. I am hugely grateful to them for allowing me to be myself at a time where that was everything I did not want to be.
After moving home I noticed that many in my communities were also struggling with their mental health. However, I recognised how inequalities based in power and resources meant that they were not able to access the support they needed. These comprised of interpersonal power dynamics based in perceived gender-roles and expectations, structural issues in being able to navigate the healthcare landscape, or even systemic obstacles where symptoms were not taken seriously by medical professionals.
These observations coupled with my own experiences pushed me to start Taraki, a movement working with Punjabi communities to reshape approaches to mental health. Started in October 2017 we focus on mental health awareness, education, social support and research. With a team of 12 brilliant volunteers we take an asset-based and a socially conscious approach to our work which recognises how single and multiple inequalities shape our experiences and interactions with mental health.
Taraki showed me that my studies in social and political sciences were very much applicable in the mental health space. Opening doors far beyond what I had previously conceived as possible, I was able to enter into a landscape where I could use my knowledge and experiences amassed from multiple areas of life.
Lived experience practice
A little over a year ago, I noticed that my personal experiences of mental health challenges, my advocacy within an under-served community group, and my academic experiences all equipped me with a unique perspective on mental health. Through the Wellcome Trust I became a lived experience practitioner, someone who uses their experiential knowledge alongside other forms of knowledge to strive for change in mental health.
Due to the persistent activism of disabled and user-communities, lived experience involvement is now a common topic in the mental health space. Situated as a part of the team and a colleague on equal footing, lived experience practitioner roles are becoming increasingly popular. However, I quickly noticed that its popularisation meant that it was being decoupled from its radical roots. The notion of historic and social power inequalities were being overlooked by a language of ‘involvement’. I also observed inequalities in lived experience practitioner spaces particularly when it came to linguistic, ethnic, and class diversity.
Speaking to my overlapping and intertwined academic, lived, and professional experiences, my PhD focuses on how we can best understand how power operates in patient and public involvement with an ultimate view to developing racially inclusive and conscious involvement practices.
I know that this won’t be an easy task, but it is one I think is absolutely integral if we are to challenge power inequalities in research and knowledge-making activities. The language of involvement is gaining purchase across mental health but we risk it becoming tokenising, reductive and unconsciously ritualistic.
I will use these bimonthly blog posts to share my honest thoughts on PhD life for someone whose work spans several areas. I am lucky to be supported and supervised by three inspirational figures, Professor Trish Greenhalgh, Professor Kamaldeep Bhui and Dr Nayanika Mathur.
If you have any questions you can email me on email@example.com