I still remember my very first shift on an acute inpatient unit in south London. I had some basic training in healthcare to do my job of course, but still, some of the patients’ clinical presentation and behaviour intrigued me. I also noticed that that the majority of the patients on the ward were from black, Asian and minority (BAME) backgrounds. This intrigued me further. I became very curious to increase my understanding of what causes mental health problems, so much that I changed my mind about studying computer science at university and applied to study mental health nursing instead.
You could say I became a mental health nurse and an academic in mental health research through curiosity really. The path I took into clinical and academia was not linear at all, but with the support of the wonderful people I met along the way, I was able to find my path to do both. After qualifying as a nurse, my first job was in a psychiatric intensive care unit, and then worked in various other inpatient and community services. I supported people who were very unwell, usually people with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar affective disorder.
“In my clinical work, I learned first-hand about the significant links between the biopsychosocial factors and mental health; I was particularly interested in the social aspects.”
I began to understand how social disadvantages influence people’s wellbeing and mental health. However, it was also satisfying to see people get better and lead fulfilling lives in the community. Whilst working as a nurse, I undertook a Master’s degree in Health Services Population Research at the Institute of Psychiatry (IOP). Here, I was really inspired by the calibre of lecturers (two of whom later supervised my PhD) and the kind of research they were doing. I knew I wanted to become a clinician-researcher. I decided to take the plunge and applied for a research post at the IOP.
“As with many research positions, my first research job was a fixed term position, where I coordinated a project, which evaluated the implementation of recovery-orientated practice through training across a system of mental health services. I got my first publication from this project, which was exciting!”
I remember my nursing colleagues used to ask when I would return to clinical practice, because many couldn’t understand why one would leave a permanent position for a fixed term contract. In the early days, I noticed the marked cultural differences in clinical and research settings, particularly the networking and training opportunities. I remember my first research job interview, where I was asked ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years?’ I said I would like to be doing a PhD. Crucially, I wanted to investigate my initial observation of the prevalence of psychosis and why people from BAME backgrounds were disproportionally affected by it, but I had no idea of how to navigate my way on to a PhD. However, I was very lucky and privileged to work with an incredibly supportive boss, with whom I worked on different projects for 10+ years; he was supportive of my research aspirations and encouraged me to do a PhD. Although I was unable to get funding for my PhD (tried a few times), I was supported to do it part-time alongside my full-time post. As you can imagine, this was a tough balancing act!
My clinical experience was invaluable in doing my work as a researcher. For example, when promoting new studies to clinicians, I was able to use my expertise to explain the benefits of research from clinicians’ perspectives, which encouraged their buy-in.
“There was also a sense of ‘she’s one of us’ when I visited clinical services to talk about research, which helped a lot with recruiting patients from clinical services.”
I feel lucky to have had a varied experience in conducting and managing research. I am very proud to be involved in a number of NIHR-funded initiatives including the Mental Health Research Network and the Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) at the Maudsley. My PhD used a part of the NIHR BRC infrastructure – the Clinical Record Interactive Search (CRIS) system, which is the de-identified copy of electronic mental health records. I am proud to continue to use CRIS for my research and be part of the BRC at the Maudsley.
Looking back, I realised that my clinical expertise was crucial to my research. It helped me make sense of my research findings, and enabled me to think beyond the numbers. As a clinician, I think about my patients and how the evidence from my research could be used to support them, not only within the healthcare systems, but at a community level too – identifying and addressing the social inequalities people with mental health problems face.
My research training and experience have provided me with many opportunities for growth, development and contributions to improving healthcare for people with mental health problems. I am now a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, where I teach mental health subjects and research methods. I also collaborate with academics, clinicians and service users nationally and internationally, doing research to move forward better mental healthcare for all.
“If you feel passionate about a subject and want to make a difference, and are considering a career in research, I’d say do it! There is help along the way; you just need to take the first step.”