Ivory completed an eight-week NIHR SPHR internship based at the University of Bristol in summer 2023. She was supervised by Dr Emily Widnall, Senior Research Associate in Public Health. Here, she tells us about her experiences.
As a second-year University of Bristol Psychology in Education student, I was thrilled to become a research intern on the NIHR SPHR Public Mental Health programme. This opportunity arrived at a pivotal moment – I was initially overwhelmed by the prospect of entering a research world that seemed dominated by dense jargon and complex findings. I was excited but also anxious and doubtful about entering this seemingly inaccessible world. However, my early experiences have shown me that Public Involvement and Engagement (PIE) is a really powerful tool that can help bridge the ‘ivory tower’ of academic research and the quality and relevance of research to the public.
Journey beyond the data – the human dimension
In public health research, PIE isn’t just a box ticking exercise. It embodies the active collaboration between researchers and the public in shaping the research narrative, ensuring people are partners, not just passive participants. During my internship, I gained numerous insights into the profound impact PIE can have.
The primary project I have been working on is improving support systems for young people at risk of self-harm and suicide. Given the stigma and taboo surrounding these issues, it is critical to incorporate the perspectives of those with lived experience in shaping the research agenda and interpreting the findings. This project actively involves youth, parents, caregivers, and youth workers through public involvement groups. I recently attended a group of young people with lived experience of suicidal thoughts. One of the public partners critically highlighted how the role of school mental health leaders was very limited, indicating a need for more organisational support in schools around suicide and self-harm. This sparked an important discussion in our report around enhancing administrative policies and systems within schools. Another example is when young people felt existing interventions overly focused on peer support, when authority figures are also important touch points. This shifted the research team’s perspective in designing intervention components.
In the Support Systems project I have been involved in, a number of public partners and public involvement groups have been involved in guiding and refining the research questions and research activity. Public involvement has not only ensured that the research objectives were aligned with broader public interests and needs, but also helped researchers gain a deeper understanding of various perspectives and needs. For instance, the public participated in the evaluation process of research and policy, providing their feedback and suggestions to improve the drafting of guidance. Their views and experiences also helped researchers interpret and understand data more accurately. This deep involvement made me realise that research wasn’t confined to numbers and facts but resonated with the emotions and experiences of those it sought to impact.
Building bridges – from research to reality
PIE helps ensure research on these complex psychosocial issues does not rely solely on academic theories and quantitative data removed from people’s realities. By collaborating directly with youth, families, and communities impacted, researchers can gain more empathy, nuance, and understanding of risk factors and protective strategies. This level of engagement and co-production of knowledge is invaluable for public mental health research aiming to elucidate such multi-faceted phenomena and translate findings into meaningful improvements in prevention, intervention and support.
Public involvement can also enhance the dissemination of research results and facilitate the public’s grasp over them. In a research outcome release meeting I recently attended, I noticed that most of the attendees were academics and researchers, or those closely related to the research field, with few general public attendees. However, at another webinar focused on young people’s mental health and wellbeing, all participating schools, educators, and students were invited to the research outcome-sharing session. The research team would send the research results along with a toolkit to the schools, enabling them to directly incorporate the research findings into their wellbeing policy and practice. This two-way dialogue ensured research insights permeated school policies, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between research and real-world applications.
However, PIE is not without its challenges. Measuring its tangible impact on enhancing research quality and visibility can be elusive. The outcomes and changes brought about by PIE in public health research often take a long time to manifest. There also appears to be a lack of academic literature that includes detailed write-ups of public involvement work, which could be something to help document and promote the benefits of PIE in future research articles. Considering that PIE requires a significant commitment of time and resources, sustaining this involvement over the long term may also be challenging.
Here are some key takeaways from my internship:
Embrace the unknown – Don’t be intimidated by the unfamiliarity of the academic world. Embrace the opportunity to learn and grow.
Value public participation – Recognise the importance of public involvement and engagement in research. It’s not just about data and results, it’s about understanding and reflecting the real needs and experiences of the research subjects.
Promote active participation – Encourage the public to actively participate in the research process and contribute to the dissemination and implementation of research results. It is important to ensure diversity of voices and perspectives by connecting with community organizations representing different groups, which can provide valuable insights and help make the research more inclusive.
Overcome challenges – The benefits of PIE outweigh the challenges, and we should aim to work closely with public through focus group or advisory group to better understand how to overcome challenges to PIE work.
As I reflect on my internship journey, PIE emerges as a powerful catalyst that can profoundly enrich and transform public health research. It elevates research not just by aligning objectives with public interests, but more importantly by enabling deeper understanding of diverse perspectives and needs. PIE allows active participation of those often sidelined throughout the research process – from shaping initial questions to disseminating final implications.
For me as an intern new to research, PIE has been immensely inspiring. Hearing first-hand experiences underscored the importance of diversity, inclusion, and confronting assumptions with empathy and critical reflexivity. It has shown me how to approach research with people, not just data, at its core.
Despite ongoing challenges, PIE’s immense potential should not be overlooked. It can mentor young researchers to conduct transformative research that uplifts marginalised voices. As we advance public health research, let’s keep PIE at its heart and harness its power to bridge the “ivory tower” with the public square. This integration promises to enrich us all through deeper understanding of the human dimensions underlying data. By working hand-in-hand with the public, research can truly resonate with societal needs and catalyse real change.