Expertise from Experience in Peer Review – Gary’s experience

Earlier in the year MHRUK asked for our help in reviewing applications for three PhD Studentships. They wanted to strengthen the peer review process by including reviewers who could contribute their expertise from experience. We asked Gary, Dolly and Remi to reflect on their experience of acting as reviewers, and we publish their blogs here. One of the themes that emerges from all three blogs is how the language that researchers use to describe the people they are studying can engage them or push them away. They identify the tension between the language that researchers feel they must use with each other to be taken seriously, and the language they would use when actually dealing with a human being in front of them. Hopefully one of the benefits of adding expertise from experience into the peer review process is that funding decisions will be made with the people the research is trying to help in mind, as well as the excellence of the science.

This is Gary’s blog, there are links to Remi and Dolly’s at the bottom of the page.

I feel that psychiatric language, reflecting its well-intentioned but sometimes demeaning theories, doesn’t always help people to deal with the realities of psychoses.

I had been employed by the McPin Foundation as a Peer Researcher for about six months when I was given the task of reviewing five applications for a PhD scholarship. Although through my own experience as a service user I recognised some of the problems and causal effects of mental illness that were being discussed I needed to research some of the language used as I am not a mental health professional.

Adolescence is a difficult time for many people, it certainly was for me. With the added burden of a psychiatric condition, adolescent years can be unbearable. In my experience asking the person suffering, what is helpful to them, is the best way of improving their life. Some of the disorders being targeted in the applications I have experienced myself. However, I tried to give the same value and understanding to those conditions I am not so familiar with.

All applicants were very serious with the intention of helping underrepresented sectors of the community who share common traumatic illnesses. All the researchers were committed to gaining a better understanding of the pain and distress caused by psychoses during adolescence, and to use this information to help improve the lives of these individuals and those who experience similar problems in the future.

Some of the language used in the application could have been more accessible.  It seems inevitable that professionals are bound in by the specialist lingo learned from their studies. I understood the applicants’ psychiatric jargon because I had to do research to make sense of what had happened when I was hospitalised for a nervous breakdown in my early twenties. However, I feel that psychiatric language, reflecting its well-intentioned but sometimes demeaning theories, doesn’t always help people to deal with the realities of psychoses.

More detail about how the information gathered may have been used in the future could have strengthened the applications. I understand that it is hard to predict what will come from data before it is collected, but signposting how the information might be used would have reinforced the applications. Taking on students who have lived experience of the subjects being investigated was not suggested by any of the applicants. I feel this would have improved the applications because it would have shown a commitment to including expertise from experience in the research.

The process of reviewing the applications made it clear to me how competitive the field for PhD funding is. As a person with lived experience of psychosis I felt privileged that my views were deemed valid. I am pleased that these sensitive areas of mental health are in the process of being looked at in more depth. All the applications were of a high academic standard and aimed to improve services and change people’s lives. It was a challenge to read and rate the applications against each other. Having gained a BA and an MA myself, I intend to go on to complete my PhD. Therefore, I wish all the applicants every success.

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