Better Together at Finding the Path: A story of collaborative mental health research

The John James Foundation Tony Ayers Prize for Excellence in Research in Translational Medicine

Dr Michelle Banfield presents this lecture as the 2019 recipient of the John James Foundation Tony Ayers Prize. Introduced in 2014, the Tony Ayers Prize is awarded annually to a researcher in the ANU College of Health and Medicine. The prize recognises a scientist who has made a significant contribution to translational research, moving from ‘bench to bedside’ to transform science breakthroughs into clinical application. The award is named in honour of longtime John James Hospital and Foundation Board Member Mr Tony Ayers AC who died in April 2016.

Lecture Synopsis

We have had a dedicated National Mental Health Strategy for more than 25 years in Australia. The Strategy was designed to get mental health care out of asylums and into the community, making it an integral part of our health system. The intention was good, and there have been some notable successes, but overall we still hear about a mental health system in crisis.

Research has a strong part to play in the ongoing effort to “get it right.” How can we know what is going wrong if we don’t study all the moving parts and what they produce? In particular, research that has strong, direct links with policy and practice (translational research) is a key driver of change. Talking with people who use services, people who provide services and people who create policy is one of the best ways of understanding questions like “What works, for whom and in what circumstances?”

However, sometimes even this is not enough. Researching at arm’s length can miss the right questions, the right methods and the most useful answers. Actively involving non-researchers such as consumers, carers, policymakers and service providers in the research process opens up new questions, may make research participation more inviting and points findings in a practical direction.

In this lecture, I will tell my story of conducting mental health research in partnership with non-researchers. It’s a story of surprising successes, tangled research designs and what happens when things don’t quite go to plan. It’s also a story of what many generous people have taught me about genuine collaboration and how research can be used. Mostly, it’s a story of how even the smallest piece of the puzzle still completes it.

About Dr Banfield

Dr Michelle Banfield is Head of Lived Experience Research at the ANU Centre for Mental Health Research, within the Research School of Population Health, and has been awarded the 2019 John James Foundation Tony Ayers Prize for Excellence in Research in Translational Medicine. She leads a program of work that takes a health systems approach to evidence for effective mental health service provision, looking at all the pieces of the practice and policy puzzle. As someone with personal experience of mental illness, her research has a strong engagement and translational focus. Michelle conducts research in collaboration with stakeholders to develop and implement effective mental health services and policy reform. She currently holds a Medical Research Future Fund Translating Research into Practice Fellowship to investigate the implementation of peer work in the mental health system. She previously held an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award looking at system access and navigation for serious mental illness. She also leads ACACIA: The ACT Consumer and Carer Mental Health Research Unit, an initiative funded by ACT Health to progress lived experience-led and -focused research.