One of the main themes of the #MentalHealthResearchMatters campaign is around inequalities in mental health research and how to develop inclusive, anti-racist practice. This focus on race, ethnicity and diversity in mental health research is both timely and relevant, and in the counselling and psychotherapy professions, culturally sensitive research practice is becoming increasingly more visible.

I was recently involved in co-designing a research project seeking to investigate the educational disadvantages and employment barriers facing psychotherapy trainees and graduates from racially minoritised and marginalised communities. Collaborating with Black researchers and academics, this project brought home very forcibly to me my own privileged position as a White (as well as male and able-bodied) researcher and made me question my whole outlook on what constitutes research and how research is conducted.

As the lived experience of participants from racially minoritised and marginalised backgrounds was going to be the research focus for this project, my colleagues proposed a decolonised research methodology. Shamefully, I had never heard of such a thing let alone considered it as the overaching methodology for a research project.

My collaborators humbly and unjudgmentally talked me through the terrain. Decolonising approaches aim to produce research that benefits and empowers the participants being researched – in this case, people from racially minoritised and marginalised backgrounds. Research participants are partners in the research, and their individual and collective expertise and knowledge informs and shapes the research questions, design and delivery.

An essential part of the decolonisation approach for me was to critically examine my own identity, assumptions about knowledge and power dynamics in relation to the research process and research participants. My collaborators encouraged me to think reflexively about my own power and privilege and how to reduce the impact of this in the proposed project design.

Key questions I considered were:

  • how do my personal characteristics (such as gender, race, disability, sexuality etc) potentially influence what I see in the data?
  • how might I ensure a power with rather than power over approach when researching marginalised or discriminated against groups?
  • how might I work in partnership with the research participants to share and create knowledge for longer term reciprocal benefits to researchers and communities?
  • how might I develop respect, trust, reciprocity and collaboration with the research participants?
  • how might I ensure better awareness and understanding and application of intersectional approaches to the research?

Through my involvement in this project, I also became aware of the ways in which conventional research methods - notably quantitative, positivistic methods – have been experienced by many marginalised communities as privileged and oppressive forms of knowledge derived from Euro-Western philosophical traditions and used historically to marginalise and silence other (non-White) ways of knowing and conceptualising the world. Working on the design of this research project has been an eye-opening experience for me but there is still more for me to do and learn in order to decolonise my approach to research and to develop culturally sensitive research practice.