Introducing ARCLIGHT

Over one billion people globally struggle with issues related to mental health, including depression, substance abuse and self-harm. Lack of research in implementation and policy change is further impeded by stigma, capacity shortages, and fragmented service delivery. In collaboration with Guyanese communities and stakeholders, and funded by the British Academy[1], Dr Ann Mitchell (Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing, The Open University, UK) will lead ARCLIGHT[2], an ambitious new research project which will develop, implement and evaluate a capacity building and intervention programme for addressing the challenges of mental health in Guyana. The project will also be supported by Dr Tania Hart (Associate Professor in Mental Health and Learning Disability, de Montfort University), Dr Andrea Berardi (Senior Lecturer in Environmental Information Systems, The Open University), Mark Gaved (Lecturer in Learning Futures, The Open University), Dr Deirdre Jafferally (Research Associate, Cobra Collective), and Gareth Davies (Research Impact Evidence Manager, Research and Enterprise, The Open University). Kerese Collins is our highly qualified project manager.

Guyana is consistently ranked within the top five countries in the world with the highest suicide rates[3]. Mental health services are barely functional, with Guyana’s public health minister describing the country’s national psychiatric hospital as “not fit for human consumption”.  Guyana is also one of the most vulnerable countries in the world with respect to climate change impacts. Increases in extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, floods, droughts and wildfires, and vector-borne disease epidemics such as malaria and dengue, will inevitably exacerbate mental disorders. These disruptive effects will also increase pressures on public services, infrastructure and the wider economy, straining social functioning within families, communities and organisations, thus further deteriorating Guyana’s capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change and its multiple development challenges.

The research will identify, record and share successful local practices for building community mental health resilience that have evolved to cope with challenging cultural, organisational and environmental conditions, and devise mechanisms to promote these in low resource settings within Guyana and worldwide. What makes this initiative innovative is how it will promote the collection and sharing of positive community stories through freely accessible local communication networks. Building on The Open University’s global leadership role in distance learning, the key outcome will be to establish a BSc honours degree in Mental Health Nursing in Guyana, which has gained enthusiastic support from the Guyanese government, the higher education sector, and civic society. Organisations supporting the project include the University of Guyana, Association of Guyanese Nurses and Allied Professionals, the Cobra Collective, and De Montfort University. The 18-month project started on the 1st of February 2019 and will conclude on the 30th of July 2020.

[1] This research project is funded by the British Academy’s Knowledge Frontiers: International Interdisciplinary Research Projects Programme.

[2] ARCLIGHT stands for ‘Action Research Community Led Initiative Guyana Health Team’.

[3] World Health Organization (2018) World Health Statistics data visualizations dashboard: suicide. (updated 04/05/18). URL: http://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.sdg.3-4-viz-2?lang=en [accessed 24/08/18]

 

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Offline networked learning

ARCLIGHT will be using innovative, low cost technologies to help promote our work, and collect and share stories of positive mental health. We will be using small, portable, battery powered Raspberry Pi computers that can be connected to from people’s own smartphones or other WiFi enabled devices. This will allow people to log in and view a website running on the Raspberry Pi, to leave messages in a Guestbook, and to share files, uploading their own and downloading others.

For the last three years, the European Union funded MAZI project (www.mazizone.eu)  has been developing a set of tools – the MAZI toolkit – and in ARCLIGHT we’ll be taking the toolkit, trying it out, and customising and improving it for use in our community settings. The tools have been built with community based learning in mind, and designed to work ‘offline’ away from the internet. People accessing the toolkit via the Raspberry Pi will have the same experience as visiting a website, except this website isn’t connected to the internet, it’s just on the computer in the same room as them.  We see this as a way of taking advantage of the widespread ownership of WiFi enabled devices (such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets) to help share and create knowledge in places where there’s limited or no internet connectivity. We call this ‘offline networked learning’.

In many places people use and own smartphones, laptops, or tablets, and have ‘domesticated’ them into their everyday activities: they don’t need training in how to use these tools that are already familiar and part of their daily lives. These are powerful devices, which enhance the kind of learning activities people can engage in. For ARCLIGHT, we can ask people to use their own devices to take photos, audio record their personal stories, make videos, and even write texts. What we’d then like to do is to work with community members to share these thoughts with others, and to work together to generate shared creations that can be stored and shared with others. The researchers would like to then take this collection of stories and use them to help build an evidence base that can inform a nurse training programme. What we need therefore is a way of sharing these stories that community members have generated on their own devices. In places where there is highly developed infrastructures we’d be asking people to connect to the internet and share their creations via a website.

However, we’re also aware that in many places there’s very limited internet and cellphone connectivity, or none at all, or that it’s too expensive or otherwise problematic to use. In these situations, the Raspberry Pi computers running the MAZI toolkit will come into its own. The researchers can ask people to bring their own devices along to a workshop, and we can all work together, creating and recording stories and sharing them with each other, wherever we are, even if there’s no electricity or internet connectivity. The researchers will be able to then upload the stories over the internet to a secure space when they are next at a location where they can connect to the wider internet, as well as drawing down other resources made by other groups, and sharing these further stories in the next community workshops.

Mark Gaved 18/04/2019

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Dr Helena A. Mitchell: Reconnecting with my Guyanese roots through PAR

Making the reconnection

My interest in participatory action research (PAR) really developed following the successful completion of a PhD study. This involved a group of Guyanese women living with Type 2 diabetes in England. Like me they had migrated during the 60’s and 70’s. Many of my family members in Guyana had the condition, often dismissing it as “a touch of sugar”. As a nursing professional I was acutely aware of the complications that leaving the condition untreated could cause. This became the impetus for a methodology that could give a voice for people to talk about their experiences of living with diabetes when also faced with dealing with migration and a colonial past. I felt our voices, as Guyanese women, were not being heard.

In the 1980’s I was a community psychiatric nurse. This role heightened my awareness of women’s mental health problems and championed their cause for improved community mental health services. This developing interest in feminism led to a Master’s Degree in Women Studies. “Being heard and given a voice” was a common call and I firmly believed in the feminist slogan of “personal should be made political”.

Returning to Guyana.

PAR inevitably changes you, sometimes painfully, sometimes in exciting and sustaining ways. My experience is that it brings about beneficial and sustainable change so my commitment to this methodology continues. It has led to British Academy funding for a research project in Guyana where I will lead a team of researchers.

This community mental health resilience project has generated international interest because of its transferable outcomes potential. ARCLIGHT, the official project name, commenced in February 2019 and is due to complete in July 2020. This ground breaking PAR study aims to explore mental illness resiliency within complex communities and encourage behavioural change. Participatory action research methods will identify record and share successful local practices evolved over time to cope with challenging personal, cultural, organisational and environmental stressors and conditions.

As a researcher I feel committed to honouring the participants’ experiences and ensuring genuine and life changing collaboration.

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