Friday 25 November 2022

How can we give our communities the Best Start in Life?

Posted by Liam Spencer, ARC North East & North Cumbria Mental Health Fellow, Newcastle University

Having had a background in youth and community work within a local authority, the question contained in the title of this blog is one close to my heart.

It is also the name that South Tyneside Council gave to one of their projects - the Best Start in Life (BSIL) Alliance - which really struck a chord with me, especially as my research interests focus on children and young people’s mental health.

I first learned about the project back in May 2019, when I attended an AskFuse brokering event for the Public Health Practice Evaluation Scheme (PHPES) of the NIHR School for Public Health Research. At this event Anna Christie, the Public Health Knowledge and Intelligence Lead for South Tyneside Council, presented on the BSIL Alliance, focussing on three initiatives: Locality Hubs; Mental Health Champions; and Young Health Ambassadors.

This was the beginning of a partnership between Fuse researchers and South Tyneside Council, and after successfully being shortlisted and then submitting a full-length application, in October 2019 we were delighted to learn that our proposal had been accepted – out of 91 registrations of interest for the 2019 PHPES funding call, ours was one of only 10 proposals that were successfully funded!

Best-laid plans

By the time the project started in April 2020, we were living in very different times to when we planned the evaluation, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We had hoped as researchers to be embedded within South Tyneside Council; this was not possible.

We had planned to include the Locality Hubs within our evaluation; these were not able to be launched.

Routine data we had planned to include in a cost consequence analysis (a form of economic evaluation where separate costs and a range of outcomes are presented to allow readers to form their own opinion on the relevance and relative importance of interventions) were either not collected or were severely impacted.

Moving from Plan A, to Plan B, to Plan C is commonplace in research, however, throw a global pandemic into the mix and you can find yourself quickly wheeling through all the letters of the alphabet whilst trying to stick to the original plan for your research! Despite the hurdles we had to overcome – the dedication and commitment from our colleagues at South Tyneside Council, and the Fuse team endured, and we were all determined to deliver on the project.

Insightful discussions at the Fuse Research Event in South Tyneside
Fast-forward to the present day and we have completed our evaluation. Thankfully, only being able to meet virtually is a thing of the past and on Wednesday 12 October we were joined by practitioners from local authority and third sector organisations, researchers, and students from across the region, for a Fuse Research Event at The Customs House in South Shields, to finally share learning from our evaluation! The event included academic contributions from myself, Ruth McGovern (study lead), and Sam Redgate, along with Anna Christie, Tom Hall (Director of Public Health), and Chrissy Hardy (Public Health Practitioner, Children & Young People) from South Tyneside Council.

Supporting young people’s mental health

Our findings showed that the successful implementation of Alliances in public health and social care related services within Local Government is dependent upon achieving a system level approach, whereby thinking, methods, and practice are applied to better understand public health challenges and identify collective actions across services. Placing local people at the heart of the system, and creating a cultural shift is also key to a successful Alliancing approach. Mental Health Champions and Young Health Ambassadors were found to influence system change by generating mental health awareness and facilitating more inclusive and supportive environments for children and young people.

As well as sharing findings from the evaluation, we wanted this in-person event to be interactive and collaborative, and asked those who attended to think about the similarities and differences between the Mental Health Champion and Young Health Ambassador initiatives. I thought it was really interesting that people recognised that these initiatives share a similar ethos, with commonality of goals and outcomes – to support young people’s mental health, in both proactive and reactive ways. Attendees felt it was important that both approaches are organic, with ideas emerging ‘from the bottom-up’. Volunteers can utilise the Alliance in a productive way, by accessing training and events, and securing buy-in from senior stakeholders, with support from Chrissy, the facilitator of both initiatives. I was so grateful for all the meaningful and insightful contributions provided, which are proving to be very useful in guiding the write-up of our findings – ensuring that they are as relevant to practice as possible.

We are very thankful to our colleagues at South Tyneside Council for collaborating with us on this project (despite the barriers we faced along the way!) – and we really hope that the findings from this work will help shape their future policies and practices. Personally, this evaluation provided me with an opportunity to learn more about current local initiatives, engage with passionate practitioners and young people, and build some really fantastic relationships with colleagues at South Tyneside Council. I thought that the event was a wonderful way to bring people together from across the region, to share our findings, and to draw the project to the close. A big thanks to the Fuse team for making it happen!

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Friday 4 November 2022

My passion for research comes from always asking "why?"

Posted by Pascal Landindome Navelle, FRSPH, Public Health Research Operations Officer and Doctor of Public Health Student at Teesside University.

In today's Fuse blog, Pascal gives his top tips for anyone starting out in research, and shares his own experience which began working with Fuse and Teesside University.

His advice? A passion for the "why?" question and accessing the right mentorship.

As part of the NIHR ‘Your Path In Research’ campaign.
After working as a clinician for several years, I felt that my impact on service users was limited. So, upon a thorough reflection, I was inspired to progress into public health research, where I felt I would have a broader impact on society.

Research work is fascinating as it provides a clear pathway to contributing to advancing the knowledge of the disciplinary sector to which I am dedicated. The importance of research should go beyond conceiving theoretical works that would only find a physical location in a library. Research should be "living", circulating, interacting, multidisciplinary, and impacting the environment.

What I enjoy about research is that it allows me to pursue my interests, learn something new, hone my problem-solving skills and challenge myself in several unique ways. Working on a faculty-initiated research project enables me to work closely with a mentor–a faculty member, and other experienced researchers. With a self-initiated public health research project, I can leave the community with a service that represents the distillation of my interests and studies and, possibly, a real contribution to knowledge.

There are many training and support systems that I have found valuable during my career. Researchers usually embark on increasingly diverse careers, where collaboration, networking and interdisciplinarity have become more important. Critical reading, academic writing and critical analysis are valuable training and support required of a researcher. Transferable skills, such as effective communication and problem-solving abilities, have helped me operate more effectively in different work environments.

Starting a research career can be daunting but exciting! The challenge of getting the support needed to achieve my dream came true when I enrolled at Teesside University for a research degree. This began by getting involved with AskFuse (Fuse’s responsive research and evaluation service) and with Associate Professor Dr Peter van der Graaf, working on an enquiry to evaluate Northumbria NHS Foundation Trust’s staff health and wellbeing resources during the pandemic, as part of my PhD research. This then led to working on the South Tees Arts Project (STAR) with Peter, a pilot study to co-produce wellbeing measures with primary school children, their parents, teachers, and artists for a school-based dance intervention. I supported the data collection, analysis and report writing for the STAR project as a Research Assistant and even wrote a song for the engagement activities with children in the research!

I had the opportunity of getting mentorship and some academic resources to enhance my knowledge. I connected and contacted very experienced researchers in the field of public health who supported my interest in growing as a research professional. Through the people I’ve met, I have had the opportunity to work on exciting but substantial research projects that have had a massive impact on the public health community.

My top three tips for somebody starting out in research are:
  1. First and foremost, you should be motivated, passionate, and curious about your research topic – do it for science, not tenure! No one ever became a successful scientist with the sole premise of being awarded the Nobel Prize. And remember that plans rarely work out the way you thought they would.
  2. Be prepared for a challenging career. Research is ever-changing. Be prepared for the change that research comes with strengthening your problem-solving skills to enhance the fun aspect of research. Problem-solving skills refer to handling difficult situations and overcoming complex challenges. They involve breaking a problem down into its parts, thinking critically about each element, analysing the information you find and using that information to form an effective solution. Having strong problem-solving skills will help make you an asset in your research practice and help you advance your research career.
  3. Finally, be proactive, network and connect more with like-minded professionals. Sometimes, the key to getting to places is not what you know but who you know. We can learn a lot from talking to peers and senior colleagues. Attending symposiums, seminars and conferences is a great way to meet people who share common interests with you but have different experiences.
The NIHR has supported my career development through the provision of training, access to leadership development opportunities, networking events, mentoring and guidance on research funding.

The NIHR launched the Your Path In Research campaign this week. Better research leads to better services for the public. That’s why the NIHR want to encourage organisations and social care and public health professionals to play an active role in research, as a way to deliver even better services.

The Your Path in Research campaign highlights how people can make research part of their careers. Some amazing researchers have shared their experiences, how they started in research and what advice they can give to researchers that are considering adding research to their careers.

Take your first step in research today.