Mental health and society, Mental health nursing

Meet the researcher – Professor Ben Hannigan

Dr Ben Hannigan

Why did you choose to do research into mental health?

Working in the mental health field came first for me, with research following. I studied for a social sciences degree when I left school, and after a short period teaching English as a second language gravitated to mental health work as a full-time volunteer in a day service run by the mental health charity Mind. I met mental health practitioners and students there and began exploring routes to professional practice ahead of enrolling on a four year mental health and general nurse training course. This was at the time that most nurses were prepared for practice in NHS schools, with no higher education involvement.

I remember as a student of nursing thinking that we had much to do as a profession to generate an evidence base and to prepare practitioners to think as well as to do. I was curious as a student, and then as a practising community mental health nurse, and had (as I still do) a motivation to improve the experience of people living with mental health problems. I worked with colleagues whilst in practice to undertake some small-scale, local, research on interprofessional working and on service users’ views, and when I made the leap from practice into higher education for what was advertised as a teaching-focused job I was determined that applied mental health research would be an equal part of my role.

Who inspired/inspires you?

I’ve always admired people who can use, and create, ideas and evidence which cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. I can think of numbers of people working in the mental health field able to do this. In addition, relative to our numbers nursing has relatively few researchers. I’ve been supported and inspired by people, here in Cardiff and beyond, who have invested their energies in growing research capacity and in putting services and practice on a more informed, evidenced, footing.

What are you currently working on?

I’m an applied mental health services researcher with interests in people’s experiences of using, and working in, the system of mental health care. I’m involved in two projects at the moment, as well as supervising doctoral students: one is a synthesis of the evidence in the area of end of life care for people with severe mental illnesses, and the second is a trial and evaluation of a novel intervention for people with treatment-resistant PTSD. I’m learning lots in both.

How does your research inform your (clinical) practice and vice versa?

I no longer work as a practitioner, but every research project I have led or contributed to has been a service and/or practice-oriented one. The research questions I’m interested in answering arise from the experiences and observations of people receiving and providing mental health care.

What changes have you seen in attitudes towards mental health during your career?

It’s remarkable how much more mental health is talked and written about now compared to the 1980s, which is when my career commenced. I think this is a very positive thing, which I hope is also reflected in growing public tolerance and understanding. I also observe how mental health remains a contested area: much more so, I suspect, than is the case in other health care fields. There continue to be sharp debates and disputes in all sorts of areas, including the explanatory frameworks for understanding distress, competing claims to knowledge, the content and boundaries of professional practice and so on.

What do you think the key challenges are for mental health?

Mental health services have struggled in an era of austerity, and the mental health workforce is seriously depleted. If we’re serious about improving mental health and in developing services we need new investment, and to do better at telling people how rewarding careers in mental health care are. We also need to expand the numbers of people involved in mental health services research, including people with backgrounds in nursing and the allied health professions.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a career in mental health research?

Find friends and collaborate. If applied mental health systems and services research appeals, then listen carefully both to the experiences and views of people living with mental health difficulties and using services, and to the experiences and views of people working in the system.

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