Dr Ruth Riley developed a performance art piece to share the stories of doctors interviewed for her NIHR-funded research on doctors’ mental health, as a novel way to raise awareness of mental health issues and create impact from her research.
Ruth Riley knew that doctors were suffering from mental health problems and severe stress. But few were talking about it, partly because of the stigma of ‘help providers’ needing to seek help themselves. Her PhD thesis on empathy and GPs’ consultation styles revealed a wide-spread problem that needed further investigation.
Before developing a research proposal though, she had informal conversations with about 10 doctors, who helped her to clarify the research question and shape the design of this qualitative study.
Two service users, two clinical GPs and three academic GPs from across the country were co-applicants, as was a medical student activist for student doctors’ mental health. In addition, Ruth rang the former Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners / Medical Director of the practitioner health programme, whom Ruth had not met; the Chair agreed to be a co-applicant. Thus, the team was a mix of research users, academic and clinical doctors from various stages of training with influence across many different networks including students and national policy-making bodies.
Ruth was awarded £136,000 in funding by the NIHR School for Primary Care Research to investigate the topic. As the design was developing, Ruth started thinking about how best to share the doctors’ stories. She wanted to do justice to the accounts by making them come alive.
Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself while the study was in development. The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute (EBI), a University of Bristol unit that carries out public engagement and other activities, put out a call for health researchers to work with artists.
Shortly Ruth was awarded funding from the NIHR School for Primary Care Research, her proposal was accepted by the EBI. EBI allocated £34,000 in funding, of which 40% came from the Arts Council. Ruth and a panel of others interviewed several artists and chose Viv Gordon, who had herself experienced mental health issues to work with Ruth and her co-investigator Johanna Spiers to develop a performance piece.
Ruth, Johanna and Viv met frequently to co-produce the piece. Ruth and Johanna provided about 20 transcripts, and Viv shared recent revisions of the script which drew on her lived experience, imagination and empathy while remaining faithful to the participants’ stories. Meanwhile, Georgina Bladon from the EBI was finding venues for the production, co-ordinating the researchers and Viv and generally ensuring that things proceeded smoothly.
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