Earlier this month I joined colleagues at the main meeting of the #MHNR2019 scientific committee, held (as the conference itself will be) at the RCN in London. We had a good number of abstracts to work through, submitted by people from the UK, the US, Australia and elsewhere. The programme is being worked on now, and people will not have long to wait before learning the outcomes of the panel’s deliberations. As an aside, whilst the conference committee always welcomes proposals for workshops as well as for concurrent sessions, posters and symposia we were reminded, when we met, of the importance of workshops promising to make delegates work. This is doubly important given that a workshop typically occupies the same amount of time on the conference programme as do three concurrent talks: so they have to sound engaging, and interactive, and not read like a plan for a 90 minute lecture.
Finally, this is my 16th unbroken annual trip to the Hay Festival. When I was first here the event was a relatively small-scale affair, held in the town’s primary school. It’s a much bigger enterprise now, located on a site some half a mile out of town to which many thousands of visitors arrive each day. This year I’ve listened to talks and round table discussions on the interminable horror that is Brexit, the making of (and the intentions behind) Our Planet, the invasions first of the Vikings and then on D-Day, and more.
I’m back from the annual week-long trip to the Welsh Marches, taking in an eclectic mix of speakers at both the Hay and the newer How the Light Gets In festivals. The first of these has grown in size to the extent that, for some years, it has been located out-of-town in a field of marquees. I remember visiting when events took place in the local primary school. The second, much smaller, festival makes use of the Globe building supplemented with tents across two sites.
There was plenty on offer related to the field of mental health. Andrew Scull used images to support a tour through mental health services across time, and Mark Salter gave a lively account of the limits of biology. Richard Bentall, Dinesh Bhugra and Simon Baron-Cohen debated categorisation and diagnosis, concluding (in largely consensual style) that what we need is more public mental health, peer support and respect. David Healy continued his critique of the pharma industry.
This year the weather was kind, which always makes a difference. Travelling further north for a day, deep into Powys, took us to the Elan Valley and a fine walk in the hills.
Back at the festivals, I’m always impressed when natural scientists are able to convey difficult concepts in ways which are understandable to lay audiences. This is not easy, I would have thought, when the working language is that of mathematics. On this occasion I took the time to listen to a discussion on the physics of black holes, and was glad that I did.
Next week sees me back at work, with a new office giving views over Cardiff towards the Bristol Channel. Here’s a photo taken just before I headed off for my week away. Look hard enough and you can, just about, make out the sea.
Here’s what will probably be a final Hay Festival-related post. Last Thursday the Nobel Laureate Professor Sir John Sulston chaired a discussion titled The Next Big Thing. This began with four researchers talking about what they do: Alison Rust, a volcanologist; Zita Martins, an astrobiologist; Nicole Grobert, a nanotechnologist; and Jenny Nelson, a physicist working on materials for solar cells.
All gave fascinating talks, and exemplified the art of conveying complex ideas to the interested but non-specialist listener. And who doesn’t want to hear about supervolcanoes (for the record, they’re bad news, and are definitely best avoided)? Or amino acids from space, the practical applications of graphene or comparing different ways of capturing energy from the sun?
This discussion has since got me thinking about the Next Big Things in nursing and midwifery research (and mental health nursing research in particular). Generally nurses do not do fundamental or basic science, and are not in the business of discovering how bits of the natural world work. So, no volcanoes or extraterrestrial chemicals for us. But practical applications of health-related technologies, and exploring and comparing different ways of doing health work? That’s more up our street, I think, even if graphene and solar power are unlikely to immediately feature.
To the applications-of-technology and exploring-and-comparing questions which might be asked within mental health nursing I would personally add some others related to the examination of health and health care experiences. We know that mental health nurses do ‘people work’ in a big way, spend much of their time coordinating (or ‘articulating’) complex trajectories of care and are often present during service users’ critical junctures. There are applications of skill and technology in this, and how nurses do their work and the effects this has are wide-open areas for study. COCAPP, as I’ve mentioned on this site before, is aiming to distil the components of care planning and care coordination associated with recovery-oriented and personalised mental health services, and is a great example of applied research in this broad field. I’d like to think that its findings will, in some way, be directly useful to practitioners and others in the fullness of time.
However they might be identified and emerge I suspect that any Next Big Thing candidates for nursing research will be the products of sustained collaborations. To return to last Thursday’s four discussants at Hay: all were explicit about interdisciplinarity, and the importance of crossing boundaries to do high quality research aimed at answering ‘big questions’. There are established academic mental health nurses doing this already (I’m thinking of people like Len Bowers, Karina Lovell, Patrick Callaghan and Alan Simpson), but more of us need to make friends with colleagues possessing specific substantive and methodological expertise relevant to our intended studies. Depending on the questions at hand this might mean finding collaborators with disciplinary backgrounds in various of the social and physical sciences and in the humanities, and if necessary with experience in the practical conduct of clinical trials, qualitative investigation and so on. Crucially, and arguably most importantly, it also means forging meaningful collaborations with people with experience of using services, whose priorities are the ones which really matter.
Further to my last post referring to Raymond Tallis’ staunch defence of the NHS, a second excellent health service-related talk at Hay was Andrew Edgar’s. Andrew is a philosopher at Cardiff University, and on Tuesday he gave a customarily considered account of (amongst other things) the principles underpinning the NHS and how these contrast with those associated with health care systems elsewhere in the world. I particularly appreciated Andrew’s view of the NHS as being more than a way of simply (simply?) funding and delivering health care. It is a unifying force, embodying the majority view that some things are best paid for and organised collectively. Insurance based systems, as Andrew observed, are abhorrent to many in the UK because they treat health care as a commodity and pay insufficient regard to need.
Beyond the principles, as Andrew also pointed out, lie some difficult day-to-day health service realities. These include the existence of rationing (which clearly exists, but is rarely talked about in an open way), and the fact that the system retains a capacity to grind down, and sometimes even brutalise, those who work within it. But opening the service up to market forces, along the lines happening in England with the passing of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, is no remedy. Note my reference to ‘England’ here. Quite correctly, in my view, Andrew was careful to talk of not one but four ‘NHSs’ reflecting the divergence in systems across the different countries.
Yesterday at the Hay Festival I heard Raymond Tallis deliver a strong attack on the coalition government’s ‘redisorganisation’ of the NHS in England. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 has opened the NHS to the market in unprecedented fashion. Tallis talked of the dominance of private providers on clinical commissioning groups, and gave examples of patients being cherrypicked by organisations more concerned with profit than with meeting need. He also contrasted the upheaval with pre-2010 general election promises by both the Conservatives and the LibDems not to unleash major top-down change on the health service.
Tallis was critical of his own profession (medicine) for having failed to coordinate opposition to the legislation as it worked its way through parliament. He did, though, pick out and praise Clare Gerada of the RCGP for leading the resistance. I’m aware that the RCN was against the proposed Act, but I’m not sure that nurses as a group were particularly visible during the debates.
The first question from the audience asked what needs to be done to prevent the Act infecting Wales. The balance of politics here is different than in England, but it was a good question nonetheless.