Empowerment and social work research - participatory action research and the relationship between the extent of mental health consumers' involvement in research and its capacity to serve an empowering function
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A review of research specific to the active participation of mental health consumers in mental health research indicates that consumers have little input into mental health services program development or evaluation. Participatory action research, which is strengths-based and action-oriented, offers a process through which people utilizing mental health services and social work researchers can work together to develop evaluation and assessment tools that are both more relevant to program outcomes and empowering to the people whose progress they measure. Congruent with basic social work values of empowerment and social justice, participatory research assists in breaking down long-standing power imbalances between consumers and workers / researchers in the field of mental health. The primary intervention involved the practicum student working collaboratively with a group of mental health consumers to design and complete a research project, where the topic was chosen by the consumer researchers. The student prepared educational sessions so that knowledge of the research process was transferred to the consumer researchers. The consumer researchers progressed through each phase of the project, ultimately completing the project and publishing the research findings. The practicum student learned how to facilitate a participatory action research project, as well as learning the skills associated with working with self-help organizations and their members. Learning goals included increased proficiency in project management skills, research management skills, and research team coordination. Facilitation of a participatory action research project differs from others in its emphasis on shared decision-making and ongoing examination of power relationships. The student’s progress was evaluated by using the following methods: a student supervision form, a post-intervention interview with organizational representatives, and the student’s progress journal. Findings indicated growth in the areas of project management (organizational and facilitation skills), research management (teaching research methodology), and research team coordination (support and accommodation). Areas of continued possible growth were also identified. The practicum intervention was evaluated by using the following methods: A Consumer Constructed Empowerment Scale (CCES) was used to measure pre and post-test indicators of consumer researchers’ empowerment (quantitative), consumer skill logbooks, post-intervention interviews with consumer researchers, and post-intervention interviews with organizational representatives. Empowerment was measured at the individual, group, and organizational levels. Qualitative findings indicated increased perceptions of empowerment at all levels. Findings from the CCES indicated positive trends toward empowerment in one subscale, minimal change in four subscales, and a significant change in the overall empowerment score.