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How a conversation about research has given me purpose again

Theo Tomlinson writes about how a conversation with his mental health support worker inspired him to participate in research studies. He encourages other healthcare professionals to take the next step in their research career, in his blog published as part of the NIHR's Your Path in Research campaign.

Conversations about the opportunities to participate in research are important. It was a chance meeting with my former mental health support worker which led me to becoming a participant in research on four trials - which has empowered me to feel stronger in my recovery.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features in 2016 - three years after being first admitted to hospital suffering with mental illness.

The best way I can describe my condition is that it’s like the information that is being fed to my consciousness has become more and more removed from what’s reality. At the same time, I have more and more belief in the information in my own head, maybe through paranoia or certain stories that I might tell myself, and I start believing that story and acting out as a result. It can be like a virus – it just takes over.

My journey in being involved in research

During my illness I’ve been supported by the Local Mental Health Team at Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. After my last admission to hospital in 2016 I was heading towards more of a position where I was standing on my own two feet. I was on my way to an outpatient’s appointment one day and bumped into Alan Beattie, my support worker. He told me he had a new position within the Trust as an Assistant Research Practitioner and was now working in mental health research – and that’s where my journey in research all started.

At first we were meeting up for a cuppa and talking about the opportunities relevant to me. The research involved questionnaires or blood samples and was very painless and straightforward. Some of the more in depth studies involved a longer questionnaire or tests on a computer, that was fun. I’ve continued my involvement and have been called on as an authority, as somebody the teams want to know things from. This helped me to feel more valued and important - that I have something to offer and give back.

Since then I’ve gone on to take part in four studies in total all supported by the NIHR and the Clinical Research Network South West.

Healthcare professionals putting their experience to good use

I really appreciate my support worker for introducing me to research. It has given me a feeling of being part of something. It’s so amazing to think I might be part of helping mental health treatments improve in the future.

As someone in a position of recovery, I can speak for those who are unheard and are often frustrated or frightened; fellow patients, people I shared a ward with or an art class, housemates  and some friends that sadly did not survive their mental illness. It's a chance to pass forward in some small way and the system can learn from the symptoms of healing, as well as distress.

Throughout my time in and out of hospital I wondered what living with bipolar and psychosis would mean for me and my life. I questioned my purpose and place in society, but, for me, research has helped define that and made me realise I do have something to give back and to offer. I feel like I might be helping other people in some way. It’s given me a sense of purpose again.

Taking part in research seems like the next step after treatment. It was nice to be approached – to feel wanted and needed.

My support worker was amazing at his job and I find it inspiring how he became an assistant research practitioner. He recognised that he could make a difference in research and I encourage others to consider taking their next steps on the path he took.

I’d encourage healthcare professionals to take their next step in research. They are on the frontline in healthcare and they know better than anyone else what works and what doesn’t in healthcare. They are qualified through their experiences and can put forward their ideas and ideas from their colleagues. I’d urge them to be open to the possibility of getting more involved in research because everyone has a unique perspective to offer.

Fin out more on the NIHR’s Your Path in Research page.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.