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Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers' Blog

We need to talk about *******: Public engagement for “taboo” topics

  • Mar 18 / 2015
  • 2

We need to talk about *******: Public engagement for “taboo” topics

By Olivia Kirtley:

As a child, I grew up watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on TV and feeling a tremendous sense of excitement as these famous scientists submerged PhD students in ice water baths, cuddled lemurs and dissected brains, all in the name of public engagement with science.  During my PhD, I’ve been on lots of courses designed to equip scientists with the wherewithal to take their research out of the ivory towers and into people’s everyday lives. However, it has rapidly become clear to me that if your research doesn’t go whizz or bang, you are somewhat out of luck.  For those in health research, this can cover rather a lot of areas, e.g. sexual health, alcohol and substance abuse, and indeed much of mental health research.

One day I lamented this fact in a meeting and one of my supervisors asked “Well, what public engagement would you like to do?”  To which I had to answer, “I don’t actually know.”  So far removed does my research seem from all of the activities that are catered for within the existing public engagement courses I have been on, that I am not even sure what opportunities there would be.  I cannot make a jelly cell to talk about psychological distress and there is no plush cuddly microbe for emotional pain.  For me, this raises a question of whether or not health science, or at least some areas, needs some more specialist assistance in making our research accessible to the public.  Particularly for PhD students in these fields, specialist public engagement training catered to the unique needs of topics which are often felt to be “off-limits”, could be of huge benefit, changing the way they think about their research for their entire careers.

When asking for ideas about how we can better talk about suicide research with the public, I have frequently met with the response “Oooh…well that’s quite a tricky topic”. Or “that’s not really something we could talk about.”  If we can’t even get other researchers to accept our topic as something to be talked about in public, how can we hope to engage non-academics with our research?

Maybe we could frame it differently?  Perhaps we should talk about good mental health as a key part of overall wellbeing (which it is)?  But at some point, I am probably still going to have to say “suicide”.  Shying away from topics that may be perceived as sensitive or emotive helps to perpetuate stigma.  Stigma costs countless lives each year and people suffer with mental and physical health conditions, as well as huge health inequalities, in silence because they are embarrassed, ashamed or too isolated to tell someone or seek help.  I feel strongly that as researchers we have a duty to use our privileged position to break down barriers around openly discussing health issues.

Public engagement is in vogue as increasingly more funding bodies require scientists to communicate their research to the public who fund it.  The bottom line though, is that our public engagement activities have so much more potential than acquiring grants; they can start conversations about important health issues that could result in real positive change for individuals experiencing various mental and physical health conditions, as well as those who support them.

What are your experiences of public engagement in health and wellbeing research?  Do you have any good ideas for/experience of engaging the public with sensitive research topics?


  1. Adele Warrilow

    I agree that it is a definite challenge to explain or promote research in sensitive areas and such research does not lend itself to the traditional cool/exciting public engagement activities. However it is important that the public can equally access our research, especially for researchers funded by public bodies e.g. MRC. It is also important for us as researchers to meet with people and families that our research may affect and understand what is important to them when considering future research directions.
    Engaging with related charities may provide opportunities for engagement with interested members of the public.
    I recently took part in an excellent public engagement event – two of my colleagues have developed a mobile app to help young people prepare coping strategies for mental health difficulties :
    As part of the launch event I was a group facilitator for a group of secondary school children who discussed and completed activities on the mental health of young people. These were age appropriate and took place in a safe environment (school) where young people could access support if required. I was impressed at how well the young people engaged with the activities.
    I also would like to hear the experience of other researchers in tackling this important challenge!


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