Ethics, the personal, and the need to care for yourself as researcher

So, not posted for a while – the PhD engine caught up speed and carried me along. I have been / am busy with writing and presenting opportunities… all very lovely. The Facebook research group is amazing and I am tackling the analysis of hundreds of comments.

And then… and then… a stunning blow from left-field.

A warm, talented, generous supporter of the research – M – who had been emailing me with comments and advice, not participating actively in the Facebook group, but known to many members – took her own life following a long and difficult personal battle.

I was really rocked by this – our electronic ‘relationships’ aren’t really weak ties, are they… and the Facebook research group is an example of how human beings can find a significant connection despite not having met ‘IRL’. In addition to the impact on me personally, I needed to act ethically and appropriately as a researcher, but I had no idea how to handle the situation.

I spoke to my lead supervisor, who was kindly supportive and keen to understand how she could support me as ‘person’ first and ‘student’ later. She arranged to speak to the chair of the university ethics committee – a psychologist – to seek advice on a personal and professional level.

I was put in touch with Big White Wall – a free counselling and advice service subscribed to by many UK universities – perhaps your institution uses this service too. I didn’t know about it before, but wondered if I should have.

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I had supportive and practical advice as a researcher – a specific post on the Facebook group, a reminder that if participants were distressed and wanted to remove themselves from the project, then they could, a thread providing contact details for mental health wellbeing charities such as MIND and The Samaritans. Most difficult – a note to the family expressing condolence, informing them about M’s contribution to research and a request for them to consider whether I had their permission to use the data or whether they would like it destroyed.

I am moved by the support at a personal level – Part of my own journey to this PhD focus has been a battle with mental health issues. My supervisors’ care and concern has been touching, as have the suggestions from an advisor on the ethics committee and the incredible pulling together of the research participants as they supported one another.

As a researcher, I think there are two areas I need to think about. Firstly, I have been reminded that the research itself – on how working with textile crafts can have a positive impact on mental health wellbeing – is really important. Many participants feel that knitting or crochet has ‘saved their life’ and I want to explore why and how this is. However, I also want to consider how universities support researchers and equip them with tools to manage unforeseen, difficult or traumatic events in their research processes. My university has already organised training for PhD supervisors on supporting mental health issues emerging in research. I am hoping to speak to the ethics committee and other students about how situations like this could be managed in the future.

I had excellent advice, but it was delayed as there was no existing protocol to follow. This is not a criticism, but a reminder that perhaps institutions and individuals need to think about the ethics of care here – how can researchers be encouraged to more fully consider ways to protect themselves from harm, as well as participants?

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RIP M

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