I recently met Aislinn Bergin, a PhD student, at the King’s Fund Digital Congress and it was great to find out about her research. As I enter the final stages of writing up my thesis, it’s nice to be able to help out someone in the early stages of their PhD journey. Here is a bit more from Aislinn about her research:
I have to admit that I wish I had thought of the words ‘people-driven’ when I first started my research. Instead I chose the much more difficult to explain concept of ‘autonomous’ – it’s also one of those terribly academic words that no one really knows the meaning of. Oh to go back in time! In fact the title of my research, “a constructive grounded theory study of the experiences of autonomous users of digital mental health” is quite a mouthful, so much so that I had to set up a website just to explain it!
People-driven really does explain my research quite well though. I’m inviting people to tell me about their experiences of digital mental health, of using technology for their mental wellbeing. After spending the past 3 or 4 years digging deep into the world of digital mental health, looking at everything from computerised CBT to gaming apps for anxiety, I realised that there was something really significant going on. On the one hand you had all this research looking at the efficacy and acceptability of various digital tools and activities and on the other you had people using them. Lots of new stuff was being created, tested and rolled out with less than perfect results (few people actually used them) and it seemed like nobody was listening to the people who knew best. That is, the users. It’s much better now with organisations like mHealth Habitat, but the research is still thin on the ground.
So that was the start to my research. I chose the word ‘autonomous’ because I wanted to ask the people who were already using websites, apps, social media etc for their mental health. They weren’t told by their doctor to go online and find this information. They weren’t given an app by a researcher and told to use it. It was their decision to use them and I think that is pretty important.
It was also important for me to actually hear what people had to say about their experience. I could easily have imposed what I thought I’d find, formed hypotheses, and tested them. But it would have meant that I completely missed the complexity of digital mental health, where one person’s trigger is another’s support and the technology itself could cause the very problems it’s trying to help (think sleep apps and the finding that looking at screens before bed can disrupt your sleep). So with questions left purposefully broad I can sit in an interview and actually listen to what people have to say, I’m not looking for a right or wrong answer, and I don’t need to tick any boxes.
In a PhD you’re always asked what your contribution will be. My contribution isn’t just for academics; it’s for people too. Without toolkits, regulations or prescription we have been using digital for our mental health, and there are lessons and experiences aplenty. I’m incredibly self-conscious, always have been, and I’ve found social media great because I can now tell everyone what I’m going to do and it forces me to do it. Apps are a great way to distract me from worrying about what everyone thinks of me, worrying about how they see me. I feel that I’ve gained confidence. There’s a complexity there that people need to know about. Whether they are a developer, a user or a policy maker, the experience of digital mental health is worth knowing about.