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Karen Newbigging

After seven successful years as a Senior Lecturer at HSMC, Professor Karen Newbigging has moved on. She talks to Social Policy Matters about her HSMC highlights, building resilience while working in mental health research, and her lockdown favourites.

My work has informed my academic practice enormously because it grounded me in the realities of people’s lives and the necessity of working in an alliance with people from marginalised groups to achieve change. Hearing people’s stories brought to life the difficulties that people faced in their personal lives, social relationships and living conditions, and how these factors shaped their health and wellbeing. I came to understand how power dynamics have shaped policy and services. The areas that I worked in as a psychologist were, and still are, areas of significant social deprivation and inequalities - Blackpool, inner city Manchester and Burnley and Backburn in East Lancashire. I realised that I could not solely respond to people’s poor mental health but needed to work with them to change the systems, address the social factors and identify opportunities for prevention. I was fortunate to be involved in setting up a new community mental health service, designed by a public health consultant in partnership with local people living in east Manchester. This was during a time of radical optimism in mental health and I was influenced by the Italian reforms, normalisation and feminism, which all underscored that mental health is essentially a question of social justice. This has been a focus for my research and teaching, and I have sought to bring my activism together with my academic practice. Fundamental to this is a commitment to working in alliance with people who are experiencing social injustice and are often excluded by academic practice.

There have been many highlights but my mental health related research and the associated activity to ensure that it makes a difference to people’s lives are particularly important to me. My approach to research is highly participatory, undertaken in partnership with people with lived experience. This results in a deeper and more nuanced understanding of social phenomena as, for example, in our recent project on the role of the voluntary sector in mental health crisis support.  I am proud to have been involved with establishing the Institute for Mental Health and to have been appointed as its Deputy Director. The Institute is one of the first interdisciplinary Institutes to focus on youth mental health. I have aimed to contribute through promoting the value of an alliance with young people, strengthening the foundation for inclusion and equality, and the contribution of social science in realising a better understanding of mental health and wellbeing.

I grew up in a family where equality was important and the belief that nobody should be left out or left behind. This was reinforced by my early working life as a clinical psychologist and my political activity. Perhaps my most lasting contribution is the body of work that I have done in relation to promoting greater epistemic justice, through ensuring that people’s knowledge and voice is properly heard in research, policy and in public service reform. A central strand of this has focused on advocacy, both collective and individual, as a liberatory practice to ensure that people give voice to their experience to challenge hegemonic ideas. 

Certainly, witnessing people’s distress and the injustices they experience is unsettling and can be upsetting. I think it is always important to reflect on this personal impact but also to relate this to the wider social, system and political context. Locating the experience is one way of staying with difficulties but increasing our understanding. Solidarity is critical too, and by this I mean connecting with others or social movements that are working for change.  I have been sustained by friends and colleagues who are committed to tackling injustice and inequalities in mental health at the University, but also much wider and these include Suresearch, the Mad Studies Reading group, Catalyst 4 Change, Synergi, and Black Thrive.

I am strengthening my focus on addressing inequalities in mental health. At Oxford, I am working with Professor Kam Bhui and Dr Roisin Mooney and people with lived experience to co-design an intervention to reduce the compulsion of racialised minorities under the Mental Health Act. As an Honorary Reader at Birmingham, I will continue with my PhD students, offer various guest lectures and continue to support work in relation to addressing inequalities in mental health. I am also working with the Centre for Mental Health on equalities and global mental health.

I moved to Malvern about four months before lockdown and there are many beautiful places to walk. Walking end to end from the Worcester Beacon to British Camp certainly puts life in perspective. Alongside lockdown, there has also been Black Lives Matter activism with people sharing ideas about resources and books to read to increase our awareness and understanding of the social and historical context for racism and state brutality. On this note, I would recommend Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, which is a history of racist ideas in a US context.  On a lighter note, I would recommend ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, engrossing for its beautiful cinematography as well as the compelling narrative that you can’t keep a good woman down!