Collaborative Participatory Frameworks for Youth Mental Health Research

Researchers describe the state of participatory research with children and adolescents in social work and beyond.

Sadie Cathcart
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Across the social sciences, efforts are expanding to include and empower young people in the research that pertains to them. A recent article written by social work scholars Timo Ackermann and Dirk Schubotz captures the scope, value, and barriers associated with participatory research with young people. Published in Social Work and Society, this article discusses the theoretical and ethical nuances of a participatory research agenda featuring children.

This exploration of young people as active contributors to design and outcomes in empirical inquiry draws from Paulo Freire, Kurt Lewin, Marxist theory, and critical feminism. Although diverse, well-articulated challenges relevant to the research of this nature are highlighted (e.g., access, consent, tokenism), authors paint a picture of great potential for study integrating participatory techniques.

“Our aim is to link theoretical, ethical, and practical aspects of participatory research with children and young people before concluding with a reflection on the challenges that need to be addressed when moving the participatory agenda forward,” Ackermann and Schubotz write.
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Co-production is a term that has gained recent traction in the context of both healthcare and research initiatives, specifically in the field of social work. It represents an approach that positions service-users and research subjects as central to the initiatives that concern them as opposed to passive participants. Co-production is collaborative and is guided largely by service-users themselves – experts in their own insights and experiences alongside researchers and providers.

In relation to counseling supports, co-production shares Freirean roots with dialogic praxis, a theory of learning and social change encouraging bidirectional communication of experience and knowledge to promote therapeutic change. Co-production in research and practice features a partnership between providers and/or researchers and individuals who might traditionally be considered “subjects.”

This approach is a form of inquiry aligned with psychologist Kurt Lewin’s philosophy that “research that produces nothing but books does not suffice.” In essence, it is not enough to understand a population or phenomenon in the absence of user or subject-driven action to enact change, and this is something researchers can use their power to facilitate.

The authors explore nuances of various approaches related to co-production and informing its momentum in social science. They demonstrate how several related concepts, including co-production, participatory research, participatory action research, etc., all relate to a commitment to inclusion, representation, engagement, and change through subject-driven empowerment in research.

Among the topics explored in this paper include children’s rights with participatory research with young people, ethical issues such as consent and agency, stages involved in designing co-production consistent and participatory research, project initiation, and consolidation and dissemination of results.

According to the authors, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) established in 1989, emphasizing commitments such as youth freedom to express views in matters that affect them and rights to basic privileges such as access to information pertaining to them is frequently cited as a rationale for participatory research with children.

Many of the ethical concerns associated with research that includes children overlap with issues relevant to all human subject research. Still, some unique concerns include access to opportunities to participate in research and sufficient protections, guardians as gatekeepers, meaningful versus superficial opportunity for research engagement according to study design, and power dynamics between subjects and researchers specifically related to age and background.

“[T]here are some significant challenges in the organization of participatory research with children and young people… real efforts have to be made to take children and young people’s views and contributions in a research study seriously.”

Ackermann and Schubotz identify the establishment of a “communicative space” as an important stage of participatory research with young people. This involves sensitively addressing potential gatekeeper resistance and being conscientious and deliberate about establishing co-researchers and subjects (collaborators) to target study engagement. A safe and empowering communicative space is important literally and figuratively.

Collaboration with youth in the data collection and analysis phases of participatory research can look very different depending on the study design and aims. In some circumstances, visions young people have for study methods and interpretation may be inconsistent with researchers’ views. This can pose challenges at first, but it can also “permit the convergence of these two ways of knowing.”

“The joint development of data collection tools with the co-researchers ensures that the research interests of the co-researchers or service users are taken seriously in this phase of research, that they make a meaningful contribution, and that the research tools are reflective of the young people’s and service users’ life worlds,’ the authors write. “For example, co-researchers can help to formulate questions that correspond with the language used by young people in the field of research.”

As in design and data collection procedures, a participatory model involves participants in data interpretation and dissemination efforts. Language barriers and communication differences, accessibility, and various other resource constraints can complicate young people’s inclusion in the process of sharing results. Yet, there are ample strategies to address these barriers and major benefits to youth involvement in this phase.

“[M]any young people benefit from the experience of being co-researchers and apply their new competencies and skills in their daily lives. For example, they may benefit from the experience of public speaking and representing their interests in front of groups of their peers or adults. They also use their newly gained knowledge about institutional contexts to empower themselves and initiate changes in their institutions.”
The authors also note that “research partners (such as community organizations, schools, care homes, etc.) can also become multipliers as they transfer and translate the research perspectives, experiences, and outcomes into their life-worlds or professional practices.”

Ackermann and Schubotz’s piece thoroughly summarizes the complexities and great opportunities associated with youth empowerment through research engagement and researcher responsibilities to promote this aim. This approach prioritizes innovation over convention by including young people in conversations and efforts from which they were historically excluded.

 

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Ackermann, T., & Schubotz, D. (2021). Co-production Approaches in Social Research with Children and Young People as Service Users – Challenges and Strategies. Social Work and Society, 18(3), [2340]. (Link)

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