MHR Matters, Post-doctoral

Archaeology and Mental Health – what’s the connection? A MARCH network interview

Archaeology and Mental Health – what’s the connection? A MARCH network interview
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Exploring interdisciplinary stories and novel approaches – from both inside and outside of the networks – is central to what the #MentalHealthResearchMatters team is doing.   

So when I heard about a MARCH network Plus Fund project looking at archaeology and mental health, my interest was piqued – what is the connection between archaeology and mental health?

A few short emails later, and I was sitting down – virtually – with Dr Karen Burnell (Solent University) and Dr Paul Everill (University of Winchester), co-investigators on the project, which is focused on developing guidelines for working in this arena in an effort to ensure that both the participants and the historic sites are protected.

JJ Buckle: Hello Karen and Paul, thanks so much for sharing your time with me today. Perhaps we could start with an introduction from the both of you?

Dr Paul Everill: Hello, I’m Paul and I am a career archaeologist, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do really. And the connection between this part of my life and mental health research – Karen’s area of expertise – is that around 2011 there were these press releases coming out about Operation Nightingale, which was a new Ministry of Defense (MOD) initiative to use archaeology with serving personnel coming back from military deployment with a range of physical and mental issues, as a way to help them.

Dr Karen Burnell: Hi I’m Karen, and my background is as a research psychologist. My interests are in how people make meaning of experiences in their lives that challenge their anticipated futures, if that makes sense. So for my PhD that involved understanding how veterans make sense of their traumatic war experiences. And much of that was around peer support and communication.

JJ: So Operation Nightingale – which looked at using archaeology as social prescription to help military personnel with mental health issues – really forged together your two areas of expertise?

Paul: Yeah, and they were getting these personnel on archaeological sites and the early indications were this was having a real, beneficial impact. It was working outdoors, there was camaraderie and the thrill of discovery – elements which can be really beneficial to all people.

Karen: And we became involved with helping Breaking Ground Heritage (BGH)1 to help evaluate what they do. But I think probably the other really important thing to say is that when it comes to interventions not run by mental health professionals, my concern is always whether the understanding is there to support mental health adequately and appropriately and whether the safeguarding practices are properly in place, and Paul’s concern has always been if sites are being used for the purpose of wellbeing, can we be confident that the heritage is being looked after?

Paul: Because obviously, there’s an ethical responsibility to undertake excavation appropriately, you know, it’s a destructive process – the unrepeatable experiment. So if people are using it as a backdrop for rehabilitation and recovery you have to be sure that you’re doing it properly and that there are codes of conduct in terms of the excavation as well as the participants.

I felt a profound connection with the regular person… It’s a really attractive, exciting way of engaging with different people and societies throughout history.

Dr Paul Everill

JJ: That’s true, and I suppose that is where expertise from both sides – psychology/patient care and archaeology – is needed?

Karen: Exactly, and that’s why this idea to develop guidelines for this sort of work came in. So that is what our MARCH funded project is all about. To help ensure that the participants in these projects are looked after, as well as the archaeological sites themselves. So really bringing these two disciplines – archaeology and psychology – together. I think particularly when the people on your projects have difficult memories, which are not dissimilar to the context of the sites (military veterans digging military sites with human remains), there is a real risk of re-traumatization.

Paul: We’ve seen that for some of the participants who are dealing with military casualties or remains, there’s actually a power and a benefit and it helps them to work through some stuff. And for others, it can have the opposite effect which can be quite dangerous.

Karen: This is exactly why we wanted to involve all sorts of different experts in the panel for the MARCH project. So we have mental health professionals involved, we have heritage professionals involved and we’ve got a significant amount of real lived experience, all of which has contributed to the guidelines. And a co-researcher with lived experience on the project team has been instrumental in challenging our perceptions and assumptions – she was really fantastic.

JJ: And do you think that there is something about archaeology and excavation which makes it a particularly useful tool for social prescription?

Paul: What interests me is why archaeologists enjoy what they do. There is a sense of camaraderie, the love of physical activity, there’s banter. You can see a lot of these kind of military threads running through an excavation. And there is a thrill of discovery, which isn’t just about treasure hunting. My favourite find is not a life sized gold statue of an emperor or anything like that, but an intact Romano-British pot from around 1500 years ago which I found in Cambridgeshire – I felt a profound connection with the regular person who made it and used it. It’s a really attractive, exciting way of engaging with different people and societies throughout history.

Karen: We’re trying to analyse this at the moment actually. All of the things that Paul’s just said speak to a sense of perspective I think – if you’re having troubles of your own but you find things that are recognizable from 1000s of years ago, it gives you a sense of perspective in the world. And there’s that connection with the past and how it helps you make meaning of your own experiences as well.

I think it’s such a powerful thing – the idea that we have in our environment – and in ourselves – the means to make ourselves feel better…it takes away this idea of needing an expert to make you feel better.

Dr Karen Burnell

JJ: And what kinds of results have we actually seen from these kinds of projects?

Karen: Generally, it’s an increase in wellbeing. And with the measures that BGH have used, it’s a decrease in severity of anxiety and depression. Whether or not those changes are naturally occurring is difficult to ascertain, because there’s no control group. But what’s interesting is that the wellbeing for the veterans started to approach the norm for the general population, which is quite an interesting trend.

And I think it’s such a powerful thing – the idea that we have in our environment – and in ourselves – the means to make ourselves feel better. I think that’s just so powerful, because it takes away this idea of needing an expert to make you feel better. And coming from a discipline like psychology, this thought takes a long time to shake off. Psychology can be a really expert lead, “I know what’s good for you” sort of discipline. And yeah, that’s not my philosophy. I believe that people have the resources themselves. And perhaps, you know, our job as experts is to facilitate but it isn’t necessarily to do.

JJ: You two work closely on this, bringing your two fields together. I want to chat about that a little bit – what is that this interdisciplinarity can bring to a project? 

Paul: I think the key thing for me has just been recognizing that other disciplines have these really amazing skill sets and ways of approaching a problem. And these different perspectives can result in some really novel and interesting work.

Karen: I think it is a case of you don’t know what you don’t know and you have to be open minded to the knowledge and expertise. Whether that’s in regards to a different discipline or sector or lived experience. We’re interested in people and people are not just psychology, and they’re not just sociology, and they’re not just one thing. So if you want to understand people, you cannot come at it from one discipline – you have to be open to learning about all the different ways in which we have understood what it means to be a person and what it means to be a society.

JJ: Do you think the wider academic system needs to shift to encourage more interdisciplinary work and to break down some barriers?

Karen: I do think they need to shift a little bit. And I think one of the advantages in shifting is the impact that the research can have, that’s first and foremost. But I also think that universities like ours – post-92 universities – have such commitment in actually making connections outside the university with City Councils, charities etc. I think that it could also serve a purpose in shifting power from academics to be more aligned to recognizing the value of all parties involved. But dare I say, I think it might shift the power away from larger research intensive universities holding the power over post-92s in terms of the funding opportunities, which I think is a good thing because much of our work tends to be more applied.

Paul: At Winchester we have a very clear relationship with the local authorities and local community groups and that sort of thing. And it’s just a natural part of what we do.

Karen: We see it as being very high value. Because it’s working with people who everyday make a difference, and we get to support that that work. But I’m not sure whether academically it’s seen as being very high value. And I think a lot of people would like to see that change.

1Breaking Ground Heritage was founded in 2015, by a former beneficiary of Operation Nightingale, to widen the opportunities for veterans to participate on archaeological projects.

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