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Youth Voice is Invaluable: How Participatory Research can Capture the Voices that Matter Most

 

To mark Children's Mental Health Week 2024, a lived experience research team comprised of a doctoral researcher (Rebecca) and two young co-researchers (Kirsty & Jess) reflect on the importance of youth voice and participatory research in reference to their recent project“Assessing young people’s experience of stigma in relation to their poor mental health".

 



Why include youth voice in research?


K: As a young person, I’ve always felt that the stats and understanding of mental health and mental health stigma didn’t reflect what I experienced. This made me feel ‘abnormal’ because I didn’t align with the data, and I still face conversations about my mental health where I’m made to feel that my experiences are “wrong” and have been reduced to fit the model the practitioner better understands. This should not be the solution. If you conduct mental health research with children or young people, have you ever taken a moment to think about why young people aren’t included more thoroughly or meaningfully in research that will impact them? Research has found that less than 1% of children and young people’s health related research includes the voices and experiences of children and young people in designing research (Sellars et al., 2021). It lacks credibility, like trying to report on mint-choc ice-cream without ever having tasted it. If you want to understand the best way to conduct and report research on young people’s mental health, it’s young people you need to involve. It is their voice that matters. Just like my voice matters.


The impact of youth voice


J: For me, it has been really beneficial to move on from previous stigmatising experiences by having a lot of input into this research. This often made the process difficult because we were handling sensitive topics and a lot of what was brought up while I was conducting interviews that I could relate to. But thankfully within the co-researcher position, we were all supported through this and given space to check-in, debrief and take time away from the project if needed. This also allowed me to empathise with our participants, deepening the data we were able to collect and connecting with our participants to provide them a cathartic and safe space within research. I remember reflecting on the times that I had experienced stigma and discrimination and how this would have been different if another young person had been there to hold that space and make me feel validated. It felt amazing to be that young person for someone else.


K: The biggest impact of youth voice on me is how inspiring it is. If the world wants to learn more about the stigma experience of young people with mental health, then the young people are your greatest source of insight. Their voices are invaluable and can be the difference to whether or not the research findings contribute to any form of change. Through my opportunities of engaging in youth work, and advocating for youth voice, I have discovered the space for my voice in academia. Being the expert in the room is empowering and contributing my voice as a young person to a field that has the facilities to create change, demonstrates that we can find these spaces if we put in the work. I never considered myself capable of further education, nevermind active research. I wasn’t the smartest in the class, or confident enough to share my ideas - but I have learnt through this research project that I am capable. Because I learnt that my ideas and contributions were valuable and that my voice has power.


What Can You Do?


R: Recognise the privileged position of power you are in as a researcher and take steps to challenge and balance this power. I learn more from young people about how to conduct meaningful and life-changing research than I have from any degree!


J: Create space for young people to have a say in what is being researched and why, alongside how the research is conducted. Make sure that young people are involved in EVERY step of the process.


K: Take the time to establish relationships with the young people you engage with, and encourage them to share their thoughts and ideas. Make your practice accessible to really ensure that their insightful, inspiring and invaluable voices are heard.


Conclusion


Youth voices are invaluable and can be the tipping point for whether a research project actually reflects the needs of a community. If research and academia opens its doors to more young people, then we can reshape the way research is conducted and break down barriers between researcher and researched.


 

To conduct this doctoral research project, over the last 26 months we have taken a participatory research methods approach rooted in co-production, children's rights and relationships first. Our team is comprised of lead researcher and doctoral candidate Rebecca Johnson based at Glasgow Caledonian University and co-researchers Kirsty Hughes, Jessica Miller and Rhi Macintyre.


Kirsty Hughes is a final year undergraduate psychology student at Queen Margaret University and has a significant focus of working within the field of mental health in both her employment history, educational development and career aspirations.


Jessica Miller is also a final year undergraduate psychology student at the University of Aberdeen and has been involved in the area of mental health stigma and discrimination since 2018, where she joined See Me Scotland as a volunteer before progressing into paid work. Rhi Macintyre, while not involved in the writing of this blog, is a passionate advocate for young people's inclusion in research, with a keen focus on those that are not involved in education and has been involved in the life of this project.


Rebecca Johnson is an early career researcher, known for her expertise in participatory methods and passion for accessible research and learning spaces. She has been a youth worker for 7 years and will join GCU as a lecturer later this year. Together, we make up a lived experience research team, where we prioritise uplifting young people's voices in safe spaces to ensure their priorities are heard and meaningfully included in research to create steps towards change.


You can read more about the team and their work here.



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