‘It felt vain and tone deaf to care about my PhD at all’

Emma Smith on the challenges of ongoing research during global crisis.

Mark [all names changed] pondered: ‘Maybe nothing will happen now, what with the Coronavirus’. ‘Yeah exactly,’ I responded. ‘We just don’t know right now. Things will move ahead we might just have to be a bit creative.’ I said this as much for him as for myself. I had spent the last few days frantically deciding how to rearrange the entirety of my data collection process which I had spent a year and a half crafting.

Mark is a participant in the Photovoice project I am running, focused on individuals in recovery from substance misuse. Photovoice is a Participatory Action Research method where participants are given cameras and asked to take pictures of their experiences. These photographs are then used during interviews to stimulate discussion. As part of this project, I had already met twice with participants to deliver workshops with the anticipation of meeting again as a group after individual interviews had been completed. It was this group workshop which we were speaking about. 

Mark’s interview took place on 16 March. This was five days after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 an international pandemic and one week before the Prime Minister addressed the nation, outlining strict measures never before seen during peacetime in Great Britain. It was a week of international confusion, fear, and uncertainty. It was also the week I was meant to do the bulk of the interviews which would make up my PhD. 

While making these ethical and logistical project decisions, I was plagued by the same reoccurring thought. That my research is irrelevant. In the face of global uncertainty, it felt vain and tone deaf to care about my PhD at all. I made the decision that instead of conducting face-to-face interviews with participants as planned, I would do the remainder by the telephone. A minor inconvenience. This decision was made with my participant’s safety in mind as well as my own. As I rewrote my ethics application in anticipation of this, it struck me that I had no frame of reference for how to conduct research ethically in the midst of a global pandemic.

I carried on with my research. I worried about my participants and wanted to check in on them and make sure that they were okay. I worried because I knew that many of my participants, like other individuals engaged in substance misuse recovery services, relied heavily on the routine of fellowship and other recovery meetings. Many of my participants were newly invested in their recovery journeys and had worked hard in the last months to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives. While I did not ask any questions in the interview about Coronavirus most participants volunteered what their recent experience had been, offering me a snapshot into how people engaged with recovery services were interpreting the crisis. 

One participant, Greg, with a couple of month’s recovery under his belt, joked that he had led a fairly isolated life prior to COVID-19 so he didn’t anticipate any major life changes. He laughed and I laughed with him. As the interview continued and he spoke about how important recovery groups had been for him and how they had helped him maintain his longest stint of sobriety in five years, I worried. Another participant did not rely on meetings for her recovery but was concerned about the impact that isolation would have on her mental health. She is five months pregnant and revealed to me that the last couple of months had been hard for her and that she had a relapse with drinking. I worried for her too. Yet another participant remarked that he had connected more with friends and family virtually in the past couple of weeks then he had in a long time. He seemed hopeful and I shared in this sense of hopefulness. But still, I worried. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that a major dimension of recovery is supported through relationships and social networks. A large part of the literature surrounding mental health and substance misuse recovery evolves around notions of recovery capital and the importance of social, physical, human, and cultural capital to achieve this (Cloud & Granfield, 2009). These evolve not only around notions of human connectivity, but the resources, goals, and values necessary and available to achieve recovery aims. It seems that every one of these is being affected by the response to COVID-19 and the resulting isolation. SAMHSA also postulates in their guiding principles of recovery that recovery services and support must be flexible to rise to the individual needs of their service users. Recovery services around the nation are currently in the process of doing this by offering virtual one-to-ones and group workshops, and by continuing street outreach in safe and imaginative ways. While I applaud their efforts, I worry for my participants and others like them in recovery, and hope that their voices and experiences are not lost amidst the backdrop of this crisis. 

Emma Smith is a MPhil/PhD Research Student in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Worcester.

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