by Patsy Staddon, author of Mental health service users in research
It is exciting, as someone who is a service user and a slightly off-key academic, to be seeing a book with one’s name on the cover. I had never really expected even to have my research projects funded, or to obtain my PhD at the age of 65, let alone to meet and work with the talented people whose work is presented here.
This unusual book applies a sociological perspective to experiential knowledge and academic research. It celebrates a unique achivemen:’ a series of seminars at the British Library which brought together the work of sociologists, ‘service users’ and ‘service user sociologists’ to stand as evidence of the width and depth of service user research and its implications. The series was organised by the Survivor Researcher Network and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Mental Health Study Group, and co-ordinated by Lydia Lewis and Angela Sweeney. It included displays of work from two survivor organizations: the Survivors History Group and Recovery.
Eight of the book’s chapters are contributed by presenters in the series: Angela Sweeney; Peter Beresford (with Kathy Boxall); Hugh Middleton; Steve Gillard, Kati Turner, and Marion Neffgen; Lydia Lewis; Patsy Staddon; Jayasree Kalathil; and Sarah Carr. Further perspectives on user involvement are added in the chapters by Katherine Pollard and David Evans, Rachel Purtell and Wendy Rickard, and Hugh McLaughlin. In this way it has been possible to consider the sociological implications of service user involvement both now and in the future.
We see the value, but also the difficulties, encountered in the application of ‘insider knowledge’ in service user research. We are shown ways of ‘doing research’ which bring multiple understandings together effectively, and observe the sociological use of autobiography and its relevance. We see how our identity shapes the knowledge we produce, and question how voices which challenge contemporary beliefs about health and the role of treatment are often silenced. An imbalance of power and opportunity for service users, and the stigmatising nature of services, are considered as human rights issues. Most of the contributors to the book are service users/survivors as well as academics. Their fields of expertise include LGB issues, racial tensions, and recovering from the shame and stigma of alcoholism. They stress the importance of research approaches which involve mutualities of respect and understanding within the worlds of researcher, clinician and service user/survivor.
Several contributors, the editor included, feared their voices would never be heard if they did not acquire some sort of academic status, and often struggled against remarkable odds to achieve this. Some of them outed themselves from the start, challenging established medical knowledge, as they sought the social perspectives needed to make sense of their worlds. Others have feared that admitting ‘service user’ identity would disqualify them from serious consideration as academics, and even from employment. Yet we are all likely to be ‘service users’ one day and dividing the world into knowers and their subjects obscures and restricts the very knowledge that is so expensively sought in large scale research trials, frequently designed without the benefit of a sociological perspective (McLaughlin, chapter 11).