In this blog post Gillian Samuel, Public Involvement Coordinator at The McPin Foundation, together with the Public Mental Health (PMH) Peer Research Team and Becca Bayliss, SPHR PMH Network Coordinator based at University College London (UCL) discuss the introduction of a new Buddy System between peer researchers and academics within the SPHR Public Mental Health programme.
The SPHR Public Mental Health programme has been running for two and a half years. It is in the second phase of research projects focused on generating new knowledge and building the evidence base that practitioners and policy makers can use to improve mental health across the population.
We have been working closely with a team of peer researchers. By ‘peer’ we mean in this context, people with an interest in inequalities and public mental health and who have a direct lived experience of managing poor mental health and also research skills and experience. One of the key elements of the peer researcher role is to bring the voice of the public to our research programme. The inclusion of peer researchers is supported by the McPin Foundation. The aim of the programme is to ensure that the work we do is timely, relevant, and meaningful to people’s lived experiences of poor mental health.
Peer researchers are key to this aim as they provide a bridge between the academic community and the public, sharing relevant expertise and experience of research and community engagement work, together with experience of managing mental health issues.
The peer researcher team at the McPin Foundation have shaped the PMH programme in important ways. They plan and co-deliver programme meetings alongside the programme leads including, running ice-breaker exercises, to help everyone connect and develop a supportive collaborative space. They co-author papers with the team based on work that has been jointly produced.
We are keenly interested in improving the way we work across teams of peer researchers and academic researchers. After our first year of working together, we asked both peer researchers and academic researchers to reflect on how this collaboration has gone and areas where we could improve our ways of working. We are using these findings to improve the way we work in the programme.
One of the new initiatives we have set up, which grew out of our learnings from the first year of work, is the Buddy System! This recommendation came directly from a peer researcher, who suggested that:
Each Peer Researcher could be paired with an academic with the aim to enable closer integration of the Peer Researchers with the programme and closer integration of academics with public involvement work.
The co-leads for the programme were in full support of this idea and wheels were set in motion at the start of the year to develop a Buddy System.
The Buddy System
The goal of the Buddy System is to create a two-way relationship between a peer researcher and a university-based academic researcher where an exchange of knowledge and information can occur. Our hope is that implementing this Buddy System will:
- Break down the barriers that often exist between peer researchers and university-based academic researchers.
- Encourage and create an open space for continuous critical reflection, co-learning and improvement.
- Give peer researchers and university-based academic researchers the chance to evaluate and reflect on public involvement work together.
- Help address the challenges that come about when navigating the research process by providing a forum for questioning and clarifying outside of the ‘formal meeting’ scenario. Challenges such as understanding academic processes in research, unpicking jargon and other obstacles can be discussed in this way.
Each peer researcher and university based academic researcher will have the opportunity to establish an excellent reciprocal working relationship with each other. This will address some of the imbalances that can emerge when involving multiple partners and people working at different levels of seniority. We anticipate there will also be other benefits such as improvements in how we implement public involvement and engagement, and carry out collaborative research.
Setting up the buddies
We have matched each peer researcher with a university-based academic research collaborator. This was done by sending a call out to all academic collaborators across the programme to see who was interested in participating. Each volunteer provided a short summary of their background in research. Using this information, the peer research team discussed together how to best match each pair. Decisions were based around spotting something in common, for example, one academic had recently completed her PhD and has been matched with a peer researcher who has also just completed his PhD. One peer researcher had a particular academic in mind, who she had met at previous meetings and with whom she felt comfortable. She invited her to become her buddy and, as a consequence, they are now paired up.
Earlier this month an email was sent to each pair introducing them to each other and detailing next steps including plans for the first meeting and setting out our goal to make this a relaxed, informal and mutually beneficial relationship with minimal administration, but recognising the importance of providing clear guidelines and expectations.
A set of initial discussion questions were devised to help each pair identify what the role of a buddy is and is not, and to form the main focus for their first meeting. The answers to these questions will be collated and inform a new Buddy System Guidance document. This excellent example of co-production will hopefully mean that every aspect of the buddy relationship is mutually agreed upon and beneficial to all.
It is now over to our buddies to progress the relationship and set up their first meetings. This is a truly collaborative endeavour, and we hope the introduction of the Buddy System will be another step towards further integration, empowering both peer researchers and university based academic researchers alike. There are still a lot of unanswered questions to consider as part of this process: Will this be a success, what do we mean by ‘success’ and how do we measure it? What impact will it have on the individuals involved and the wider programme? What issues will arise? Is it an approach that can be taken and adapted for future programmes? Watch this space…