The Mental Health and Justice Project: reflections on strong interdisciplinarity by Gareth Owen
This chapter explores opportunities and challenges in interdisciplinary collaborations using the Mental Health and Justice project (MHJ) as a case study. It outlines background to the project with reflections on what is meant by ‘strong interdisciplinarity’ (which I argue MHJ was an instance of), ways the project navigated scholarship versus activism and the course of the project.
My main reflections are that strongly interdisciplinary projects offer multi-faceted opportunities for outputs, influences and impacts and that tension points are inherent and require a process of dynamic balance. I suggest that theories of strong interdisciplinarity need to evolve and that MHJ achieved its original strategic aims without being entirely bound to them. Furthermore, I suggest that there was a positive phenomenon of interdisciplinary collaboration as education that I try to capture.
The Advancement of Interdisciplinary Working. My journey working alongside the Mental Health & Justice (MHJ) Project.
Insights & Recommendations, June 2022.
By Laura Heath (Organisation Development Consultant and Executive Coach).
The final report is available here.
The summary report can be accessed here.
Below are the opening chapters of the summary report:
The MHJ was a 5-year interdisciplinary research project that was funded by the Wellcome Trust in the UK. The project addressed a cluster of public policy challenges arising at the complex interface where mental health and mental healthcare interact with principles of human rights. Its principal aim was to develop clinical, legal and public policy strategies for jointly satisfying two fundamental imperatives: to protect people in contexts where they can be vulnerable, and secondly to respect their agency and autonomy.
This was a complex multidisciplinary project offering an integrated and multi-faceted approach to researching how to support people to have choice over decisions in their lives as well as to understand better the abilities that underpin decision making. It not only addressed these issues for individuals with mental health issues but also their supporters, communities, clinicians and those in legal practice. The scope of the work makes a unique contribution to the field of mental health and justice and can be reviewed in a short film produced for wider professional and public consumption.
The project worked across many academic disciplines including law, psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology and cognitive neuroscience. It achieved its success and impact by confronting and synthesising these differences in approach, largely avoided by more discipline specific studies, and by seeking to have an impact not only through academic dissemination of its findings but also on legislation, Government policy and legal and clinical training and practice. Above all it sought to have a direct impact on the experiences of individuals, their families and supporters who live with day-to-day decisions around mental health and justice.
It is my view that by acknowledging, respecting and often painfully working through these disciplinary differences MHJ has brought about richer, more impactful change than could have been achieved with a less multidisciplinary approach. I have no doubt that the work of the project will live on, leading to even more positive change in this field.
This project offers a “model”, while deliberately avoiding a naïve prescription, for interdisciplinary working. A more detailed analysis is available in the full narrative report which describes my experience working alongside this project as an organisation development consultant for most of its duration. This summary highlights my view about the collaborative elements that need to be acknowledged and engaged with for successful interdisciplinary projects, working with the realities of ‘what is’ rather than with an idealised picture of ‘what should be’. Such collaborative attention requires a focus on the social dynamics of working together, over and above (but not excluding) the nuts and bolts of project management and formal organisational structures, resources and processes.
Health Warning: This interdisciplinary model and approach is not for everyone – it can be a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’
As in the commercial world there is currently an emphasis on the importance, in terms of management time and attention, of separating out ‘Technical’ from ‘Adaptive’ challenges. In his seminal work in this area Ronald Heifetz separates out ‘technical’ issues which are inherently defined and capable of solution from ‘adaptive’ ones, that are much more ambiguous, involve multiple stakeholders and require novel, co-created solutions. Many of the ideas and practices of what he calls ‘adaptive leadership’ can be applied in this field of multidisciplinary research – with its emphasis on:
- Harnessing collective intelligence (through valuing differing approaches and perspectives)
- Readiness to move out of ‘comfort zones’ and try new things that may not work
- Awareness of one’s basic assumptions and preferences of how the world is seen
- Recognising the importance of reflective practice and learning together through action
- Willingness and ability to stay long enough with the discomfort of disagreement and of ‘not knowing’ in order to reach new insights
- An ability to stand back, ‘get on the balcony’ and see systemic ‘bigger picture’ connections
- Resisting the ‘pull’ towards structured, centrally controlled, unilateral ‘from A to B’ type approaches
Because of the above, leaders of any multidisciplinary research project need to embrace from the start how time consuming and demanding leading and organising this type of work is – and avoid the temptation to disappear ‘adaptive’ ambiguity in favour of ‘technical’ clarity. This requires a rigorous appraisal of the extent to which the project really is addressing a “wicked” problem i.e. one that straddles established and often non-commensurable areas of knowledge and practice, and what level of complexity and interdisciplinarity are required to realise important benefits over and above those that can be achieved by any one discipline. Interdisciplinary approaches can bring rich benefits to what are otherwise seen as intractable challenges, but they bring many tensions and demands in such areas as cross-institutional, cross-departmental systems and politics, and in behavioural terms in establishing the right culture and identity for productive work. It is not for the faint hearted!