Last year, Ben Gray joined the Healthwatch Essex team as a Research Ambassador – a new volunteering opportunity which gives people a chance to try out different research methods, attend meetups to build a network, and support the development of Healthwatch Essex projects. No prior research experience is required – just a commitment to learning about the role that research can play in improving health and social care. Ben’s blog shares his experiences of being a Research Ambassador and the highlights the value of being able to bring lived experience to the role.
I have been working as a Research Ambassador at Healthwatch Essex for just over a year now. I have found this role very rewarding, enjoyable and worthwhile. I would encourage anyone with an interest in research to sign-up. This could be people with experience of illness or social care, students wanting to gain research experience, people who have experienced trauma, health and social care professionals and other individuals with an interest in research. I would particularly encourage people from black and minority ethnic groups, people from the LGBT+ community, people recovering from addiction, refugees, asylum seekers, homeless people and people like me who have mental health problems and learning disabilities, whose voices need to be better heard and require more involvement in research.
I myself have lived experience of mental illness (schizophrenia) and learning disabilities (autism). Rather than being a barrier, Healthwatch Essex have gently encouraged me to draw upon my health problems in research. The work was enjoyable and I felt valued, involved and gently encouraged to share my lived experience. I felt engaged in an important and worthwhile project that makes a difference in the lives of people. People said I would never work again because of my learning disabilities and mental health problems. But I was able to analyse transcripts and write up findings from a lived experience perspective. This enabled me to believe in myself more and recognise the value that I can bring to others, especially people with shared experiences of learning disabilities and mental health problems.
I was also able to draw on my previous work experience as a Support Worker for people with learning disabilities and my younger brother, Jack, who has severe learning disabilities and autism. I was able to use my emotional intelligence as a carer and sibling to bring to research themes and recommendations. Jack is unable to talk or care for himself. He will curl into a ball at noise or people he does not know. He will also scratch and bite when frightened, angry or frustrated. My emotional intelligence as his sibling engendered recommendations for quiet waiting areas/ sensory rooms and the empathy and compassion of nurses, health staff and care workers.
People with mental health problems can feel excluded and even stigmatised, in general life, education, employment and also research. People need to feel that they belong. I have been made to feel involved and valued by the team at Healthwatch Essex, Samantha Glover (Chief Executive Officer), Dr. Kate Mahoney (Research Manager) and Dr. Tom Kerridge (former Senior Research Officer) who lead the way and encourage lived experience research, research involvement and co-production.
Healthwatch Essex are also good at lived experience and co-production research and broader research involvement . I have been able to use my schizophrenia and autism in analysis and writing up. There needs to be an institutional commitment and high profile given to research involvement. Healthwatch Essex have encouraged this by engaging Research Ambassadors, Health Ambassadors and Learning Disability Ambassadors.
The team promoted the best level of research involvement in what I have termed the ‘goldilocks zone’: not too much work (which might be stressful), not too little work (which might make you feel not fully involved), but just the right amount of work (finding the best balance, facilitating good research involvement and the best conditions for co-production).
When you sign up to become a Research Ambassador you will find it very rewarding, stimulating and worthwhile. You will be supported and encouraged by the team, learn new research skills, feel a valuable member of the research team, gain new knowledge, give people a voice (especially the marginalised) and be engaged in a role that helps and is of value to other people and research participants who have health or social care problems.
Find out more about all of our ambassador opportunities.