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milestone_group_picture_small.jpgThis blog is the story of how the MILESTONE multi-disciplinary research team (consisting of psychiatrists, psychologists, young advisors, health economists, statisticians, scientists, administrators and many more…), with the help of University of Warwick’s Public Engagement Team, learned to embrace the new, exciting and challenging world of engaging with the public and communicating research and important matters in a more innovative way.

Back in olden days (circa 1990), “when I were a young lad” (as the saying goes!), research plans were formulated behind closed doors in a patriarchal fashion by those deemed to know better than us (often middle-aged white men) and disseminated in grandiose but ineffective style through presentations to esteemed audiences at academic conferences and publication in scientific journals no normal folk could locate (in their local library) let alone read!

Gladly, all that has changed. These days, lay people involvement in the development and implementation of programmes of research is a funding requirement (i.e. no Public and Patient involvement (PPI), no route forward!) and dissemination is an adventure us dull academics never thought we would go on.


One of the disadvantages of working in academia is that there is so much excellence around that it can be difficult to get recognition for our achievements. Yes, we live in a world of metrics (whatever they are!) and KPI (key performance indicators), which mean that various successes are counted somewhere along the line but it is rare for somebody to come along and say “wow, you’ve done a great job” or a plain simple “thank you”. Years come and go, grants and papers accumulate, but there’s much of worth that goes unnoticed. This year, though, things are different for those of us blessed to be working on MILESTONE…in April we learned that we’d been nominated for the University staff awards (i.e. university OSCARS!) by our wonderful colleagues in the dissemination team (the people who have been encouraging us to write this blog, perform a TEDx talk, etc). Well, the news was met with the usual dilemma - what should we wear? The brief said to prepare for an evening of glamour…but I for one (being a typical introverted scientist) don’t even possess that type of clothing (you don’t need “going out” clothes if you never go out!!) So I rocked up (if we can call it that!) in my usual work attire – black trousers, GAP shirt - hoping I’d be invisible. Why did I stupidly think “dull boring” would make me invisible? In that party crowd? All I probably did was draw attention to myself…in a rather negative way.

Thankfully, the rest of the team made rather more effort…here’s a photo of them looking all happy and handsome (with me hiding at the back).


Anyway, we didn’t win…but we did get “Highly Commended”, which was more than we expected and quite an achievement given that we have not yet delivered many of the things we’re planning to do. Next year, hopefully, we be nominated again and win.

In the meantime, I have a question for you…how would you like us to tell you the results of the MILESTONE project, especially the randomised trial?

OMG. OMG. OMG. Got into work this morning, plugged in my laptop and whilst I was scanning down through my emails I spotted the following first line “Yes, I remember you…” Oh the excitement! One of my favourite musical artists of all time had replied to my email request to use one of his recordings for the TED talk. Not only am I a university researcher and poet (see Creative Writing Workshop 20.10.2017 )…I am a musical director, emailing the great and the good directly AND getting replies. I sense that all this blue skies thinking, as regards dissemination of our results, has completely gone to my head. Is there no specialism I won’t tackle? No role I don’t believe I can fulfil? Well perhaps yes…just a few…fashion model, diplomat, make-up artist, chef. But I digress.

There we will be, towards the end of our TEDx talk, the audience pale with horror at the grim state of things currently for young mental health service users…and then this catchy, uplifting music starts, an earworm of hope, grabbing us from this low place and raising us up until we soar! (Yes I truly do believe that this beautiful piece of music will help empower us to try to change the world)

Persona non Grata

PS: The song that we will be using is called "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger" from an album called The Fine Art of Living by Persona Non Grata (Bruce Soord and Neil Randall). You probably won't of heard of it, or them...but perhaps you should investigate?

Perhaps the weirdest thing about attending the Creative Writing Workshop is that it didn’t feel weird at all! There we were, a group of academic researchers and our young advisors, sharing emotional stories in order to jointly write a poem (yes…a poem!), as though it was the most normal thing in the world. Perhaps it should be? Perhaps, if we opened up and shared our innermost feelings more often, we’d see that the barriers we often perceive to be between us, aren’t actually there at all?


The workshop started with the facilitator instructing us to imagine a time when we felt very low and to write a few short sentences on how it felt. As prompts, we had to describe ourselves, in that moment, as an animal, a colour and so on. We were everything from roaring lions to wriggling worms, from middle aged academics to youth mental health service users, from grim grey to no colour at all, and yet our answers were remarkably consistent; it didn’t seem to matter what journey had led each of us to the place of despair that we described - the impact on “self“ was almost exactly the same.

I left the meeting totally in awe of Joelle Taylor (the incredibly talented author who facilitated this workshop) and of the young advisors who shared their personal stories during the day. I was also filled with hope, we CAN do this you know…this TED talk. We’re going to shock, challenge, guide… ruffle feathers, upset the status quo, speak truth to power…but maybe… just maybe…ultimately…we will actually change the world!

So the great day is almost upon us....the “creative writing workshop”...and I still can’t fathom what on earth use I’m going to be. It’s the young people’s voices that we want to hear after all (not mine...a vintage number cruncher!) Ah well, at least it will be something colourful to add to my CV, a human anecdote to contrast my usual cold calculating science. (But hey, that’s allowing myself to slip into lazy cliché…contrary to common belief, scientists are not actually unfeeling robots!!) 

So anyway, on the eve of the workshop I’m wondering whether we even know what is it that we want to convey when we deliver this TED talk. How it is to have to change your mental health therapist simply because of your age maybe? I guess it must be like falling off a cliff....and hoping that someone or something will break your fall. But maybe that’s too simple...and heroic. Perhaps the reality is a whole lot darker...

I shudder, sensing that being a pawn in such a process must be rather frightening, reinforcing feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness, making young people believe they are no more than a box to be ticked, or a problem to be moved on.

If all goes to plan by the end of tomorrow I will know the answer...I will have heard our young advisors’ stories…I will know how bad it feels. Yet still a part of me wishes to retain the defence of ignorance. Isn’t there enough misery in this world, my world, for me to sit out of this particular problem? Something in my conscience says “no. Our young advisors and study participants are sharing their hearts and their hurts in the hope that by doing so something good will come of it. The very least we researchers should do is stand with them.

Jane and HelenaI have to be honest and admit that when I got an email inviting me to a public engagement and dissemination meeting re one of our clinical trials my heart sank. Why on earth would I be needed at something like that? And how on earth might I contribute?

Feeling distinctly like a spare part, a distant cousin invited to the wedding out of completeness, I made moves to wriggle out of it…but the senior researcher was having none of it. My presence was required and it was left to me to imagine how my magical aura, my alleged gravitas, was going to positively influence things (and yes, I am being sarcastic here!). 

And so, I arrived at the meeting, relieved to find tea, coffee and biscuits (if nothing else, at least it’s a tea break!). I sat at the end of the desk furthest away from where I expected the action to be, expecting to be a placid bystander.

Our colleagues from External Affairs ran through the options. There was a definite age divide in our knowledge and habits…with the young ones enthusing about TED talks (which I’d never even heard of) and highly dismissive of newspapers (which explains why circulation figures are still falling). It was surprisingly easy, however, to narrow down the options to essentially a TED talk and a play. (Yes, you did read that right…this bunch of academics and their young advisors are going to write a play!!! I mean, we write for journals all the time so this is the obvious next step…just a little stretch…not a leap of faith into the darkness armed only with a sprinkling of self-belief and a modicum of talent.)

This is one of the reasons I so enjoy working with this team. It is young, vibrant, unschooled, open to new ideas and free of shackles. There is no clinging to old ways because there are none…we are frontier pioneers setting out on our next adventure. The MILESTONE team are going to script a TED talk and write a play.