Joe Kelly attends Mental Health Research Network National Scientific Meeting / 28 April 2011
I must be meeting the right people because the North London Hub of The Mental Health Research Network invited me to attend this important conference at Cambridge University from 6th-8th April 2011 concentrating on Developmental and Youth Research. Cambridge is the home of Antarctic explorers, a famous spy ring, the splitting of the atom and the Monty Python Team, to mention but a few of its achievements.
It was good to meet service users/survivors and carers from the various MHRN research hubs of England. The Mental Health Research Network is made up of 8 regional hubs, Cambridge being part of the East Anglia Hub.
There were about 20 of us in all. We spent an afternoon at the west road concert centre, polishing our communication skills as David Armes and Jackie Barret gave us a good presentation on this very subject. Later we spent time doing an exercise exploring how the selection process for research work operates. We enacted the process of selection and had the choice of two competing research trials, giving us some idea of how experimental research might work at the committee stage.
The official opening lecture was in the main concert hall with psychiatrist Professor Peter B Jones, a good speaker who reminded me of Ken Clarke MP. Professor Jones gave us an overview of how the research was now developed and being implemented at local level. We were told how Gordon Brown took a keen interest in the development of Mental Health services, particularly experimental research to delivery. He appointed special advisers to improve the process of developing new ideas and their implementation.
Professor Jones outlined that from start to finish the process probably took six years in all. The example he gave was Early Intervention in Psychosis, which he felt was a big improvement and had done a lot of good. He also explained how groups of official bodies such as universities, hospitals, charities and private companies work in collaborative groups to develop good outcomes from inception to delivery.
Cambridge, the backdrop of our conference, is an attractive university city looking especially striking in the spring sunshine as we travelled through elegant streets with period houses, punctuated by grand gothic colleges. Tall trees freshly sprouted new leaves and bright yellow daffodils greeted the sun in the very pleasant parkland. Our accommodation was at Jesus College originally founded in the 11th century as a convent.
We were weary at the end of the day and passed attractive resident blocks with red brick façade faced with blue wisteria flowers smelling sweetly. The grass area had cherry blossom trees, with wrought iron sculptures. Sleeping soundly I awoke to a wonderful view of bright green playing fields. There was a sculpture of a mad march hare figure balancing on a tripod assemblage of cricket wickets. It sounds crazy but it seemed like a good luck emblem to begin the day.
At breakfast I met Triona, a music therapist from Limerick University in Ireland and Diana, a user Director of research from Lincoln, working closely with a leading psychiatrist, Dr Sami Tamini, who is part of the Critical Psychiatric Network. Truly we inhabited another world of privilege and power - a different concept to our normal lives where we fit into the social fabric.
The main day was at the faculty of Law - a state of the art modern building with excellent facilities including a large spacious atrium. The opening was from Dr Jesus Perez (the University of Cambridge East Anglia Hub). The plenary session was with Dr Gavin Malloch, who also talked about strategic ideas and covered addiction in young people
The theme for the meetings was Youth Mental Health. Topics such as autism, alcoholism, personality problems and early intervention were covered. As a user and layperson there were few concessions to non-scientists like myself. Some of the presentations contained difficult factual knowledge. I thought some of the presentations could be improved by better graphics in the slide diagrams and that the verbal delivery could have emphasised important themes.
Although the MHRC is committed to including the vision of users and carers, there were no presentations from users or carers as contributors to this process. One user said that there were research projects with users but that they were not at this meeting. It was a missed opportunity not to demonstrate the power of users.
Some of the presentations included brain imaging which was very interesting. A new aspect of science, which is of increasing interest and importance, is the interpretation of the images in question. There is also quite a lot of information about genetics and genes. I was beginning to feel that psychiatry is more a force for demonising a sector of society, concentrating on disease and forgetting the person, whilst not appreciating his/her rich diversity as a human being. There was little evidence of England’s multiculturism in the psychiatric arena. I‘d like to see more black psychiatrists and more reference to culture and ethnicity in the presentations.
In the evening, we had wine at Kings College court green and a banquet in the prestigious Banqueting hall. I was beginning to feel that Cambridge was the star of our work but that it blurred us to our purpose of getting a better understanding of mental distress and helping people. The elegance and the opulence of our surroundings were more a statement about the power and prestige of psychiatry. I’ve always subscribed to the idea of psychiatrists as partners in care and treatment but not as our masters.
I noted that sometimes they admitted that they got it wrong and that they did not always understand why things worked and didn’t work. There was no mention of coercion of human rights and insight into the patients’ experience. I would have been happier if there was a more humane coverage of mental distress.
I was treated very well and with respect and it was a chance to look into the world of experimental psychiatry. I was not a hundred per cent sure what our role in this process was to be. There were stories in conversation about individual users doing useful research work. I’m still interested to hear more about this.
Time being of the essence, I was soon on my way home. So having had a very good few days, I was on the train back to London, continuing my campaign to get a better deal and human rights for service users and survivors of psychiatry.