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New podcast explores relationship between societal changes and mental health ;

What is mental health as a human experience?

Dr Annie Irvine

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Global Health & Social Medicine and ESRC Centre for Society & Mental Health

24 March 2022

Mental health is an umbrella term now familiar to most people – and yet it can mean different things to different people. For some it’s a medical condition, while for others it’s a social experience and centred around wellbeing. Dr Annie Irvine reflects on her own journey with mental health and how she came to ask the question, ‘what is mental health?’ in her research.

The first 15 years of my research career were spent in applied social policy research, mainly doing contract research for government departments. In 2007, I did two projects for the Department for Work and Pensions, focused around mental health and employment. Although I’d always loved doing research, these were the first projects that really fired up a deep personal interest in me. I suddenly found myself properly fascinated by the topic of mental health and the issues that it raised.

For one of the projects, we interviewed people who had experience of losing their employment and claiming welfare benefits due to mental health problems. The other explored the experiences of people who had stayed in employment alongside experiences of mental distress and mental health problems.

These two projects showed that job retention or job loss, in the context of mental health problems, is influenced by is a combination of interpersonal, structural and organisational factors – going beyond mental health itself. These findings led me to ask more questions: what is mental health as a human experience? What are we talking about when we use this very broad umbrella term of ‘mental health problems’? And what really makes a difference to people’s lived experience and outcomes?

My research on mental health

We use the term ‘mental health’ or ‘mental health problems’ now to talk about so many things, from children’s social wellbeing in schools to people experiencing severe mental health problems such as psychosis and bipolar disorder – the term is being used to cover a whole range of things.

However, I think it’s really important to unpick what we’re talking about at any given time if we’re going to be able to move forward and support people on different aspects of that continuum. We need to think about how the ways we understand and talk about mental health then affects people’s experience in the world. When people say they are ‘struggling with mental health problems’, what does that mean to them?

How does thinking about mental health as an illness - as a medical condition – affect somebody trying to get back into work, for example? Or, if we think about mental health as a social experience and our well-being as being influenced by social rather than biological factors, does that have a bearing on the best ways to respond and support somebody who’s struggling in the workplace, or struggling in school, or in their wider life in a community?

I do have my own personal lived experiences of mental health problems at different points in my life. This obviously gives me some insight into some people’s experiences, but actually, what it really does is make me realise that everyone’s experience is unique and you can’t ever presume to understand what somebody else has lived through.

It helps to remind me to always be listening carefully to what people say about their own experience and not make any assumptions. And to always go into research – particularly qualitative research, which is the methods that I use – listening and letting people’s voices be heard through the research.

Hear more about Annie’s research journey

Dr Annie Irvine shares her journey from undergraduate studies to becoming a qualitative researcher. Her research uses qualitative methods to understand the experiences of people who have encountered unemployment, worklessness, and welfare benefits systems due to mental health – and how understanding these experiences can help improve the way the benefit system works. She also shares her experience of working within the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine and the Centre for Society & Mental Health.

In this story

Annie Irvine

Annie Irvine

Research Fellow

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