Calvin Swords

An exploration of how the concept of recovery in mental health is socially constructed and how it impacts on the delivery of mental health services – an Irish case study
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
Hi! Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?

Yeah so firstly, thank you for asking me to discuss my journey to date. I am a professionally qualified social worker following the completion of my master’s in 2017 from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Before this, I completed my social science degree from University College Dublin. I have been working in different areas (From across the lifespan) of social work since the completion of my master’s. I come from a family where both my parents worked in the caring professions – nursing and family support. Furthermore, I volunteered for several years with different services including Samaritans Ireland, Dementia Ireland, and HSE Mental Health Services.

This leads nicely to where my PhD. journey started. During my masters, I conducted a small-scale study that involved interviewing one multidisciplinary team, working as part of community mental health services in Ireland, on their perspective of what recovery is. This exploration was motivated by my own experiences of services, not just in mental health, but also in other areas of practice. The dominance of the biomedical approach for many years in mental health services does shape the experiences people have from all perspectives, both users and providers. These experiences are shaped by the interactions that take place, giving rise to meaning, and essentially conditioning us – shaping the structure of our social reality. A key finding from my master’s dissertation was the need to explore further this area of mental health service delivery.

I am fortunate to have the same academic supervisor for my PhD. as I did for my master’s dissertation. He has always been very supportive of me and was a fundamental reason for me pursuing my PhD. He believes in me, which always helped. My PhD. journey began in 2018, and I am currently coming to the end of my second year. My PhD. title is ‘‘An exploration of how the concept of recovery in mental health is socially constructed and how it impacts on the delivery of mental health services – an Irish case study’. Given Covid-19, I have fortunately completed my data collection, which was semi-structured interviews with service users, family members, carers, professionals, and policymakers in mental health services. This was combined with documentary analysis of the two most recent Irish national mental health policy documents – Vision for Change (2006) and Sharing the Vision (2020).

The research is focused on how recovery as a concept is socially constructed in mental health services. Through language and discourse, we can explore the social relationships that are giving rise to meaning within services, conditioning us, and leading to the structuring of social reality. People’s experiences of recovery are derived from the interactions they have with different perspectives. This research is focused on understanding which constructions and re-constructions of meaning are happening within mental health services, from all levels of recovery-orientated care.

I am currently in my analysis stage, with a focus also on write up now. I aim to complete my doctorate in 3 years in total, which I am on course to do so. I am fortunate to receive a scholarship that supports me to be able to focus a large part of my time on the PhD.

What does a typical day or week look like for you?

I am still working part-time as a Medical Social Worker. Otherwise, my week is dedicated to my PhD. I tend to spend some of my weekends working on my research also. I spend Sunday evenings reviewing my short term goals for the upcoming week, critically reflecting on whether they are realistic or not. At present, with COVID-19, I am working from home a lot with my PhD. I have a specific room being used as my office for my work. When COVID-19 was not in our lives, I used to spend 2 days in College in the office, and the other time would be spent at home. In terms of a typical day, I spent the first hour writing in my journal with a nice cup of coffee. I tend to then split the day into sections, focused on different chapters. I treat it very much like a 9-5 job and try to stick to this if I can.

What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?

From a personal level, my ability to critically think about the world is one enjoyable thing. Learning to become a professional researcher, with the help of very supportive supervisors has been great to date. From a research-level, networking with services and people has been a great experience. Hearing the narratives of all perspectives in services has also been a very privileged, but enjoyable position to be in.

What’s been the most challenging part of it?

Coherency perhaps. The PhD is a massive undertaking. My supervisor has labelled it, like climbing Mt Everest. I think this label should not frighten people, but it is important to be under no illusions as to the level of work involved in getting an innovative idea from start to finish, both coherently and rigorously. Short term goals do help, not just long term ones. Keeping minutes of your supervision, having action plans, and having deadlines all are essential.

Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
It is difficult to know. I am a very driven person, just like most people. For me, I would love to be in an assistant professor/professor position, which would give me the platform to contribute further to mental health policy provision and research. I am also very passionate about my profession, social work. If I can continue to work in some capacity in practice as well, I would like that. I feel very strongly about the value and role of social work in today’s society. Educating future social workers is something I am very passionate about also.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
Why are you doing it is important? Staying motivated over 3 or 4 years can be a challenge if you are not doing it for the right reasons. Selecting a supervisor who you will work well with. What does that mean? Well, reaching out and speaking with professors, asking them about how they supervise students? You need to think about what is going to work for you. Some people like being more autonomous than others. What areas of expertise does your potential supervisor have? Do they fit with what you want to achieve with your research? Can you talk to any of their former students? Doing your homework on this is important.

What makes your university a good place to study?

Trinity College Dublin is an excellent place to study. This is because the professors in the Department of Social Work and Social Policy are experts in their field. Furthermore, beyond your supervisors, staff are very open to meeting with you to discuss your research, giving support and guidance. Trinity is in the heart of Dublin City, with beautiful grounds and plenty of things to do. There is a large group of PhD students, so there is a lot of peer support. Finally, you are assigned a shared office with one or two other PhD students is helpful and supportive.

Lastly, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I am a big follower of all sport and play it almost every day. Currently, I play club rugby and also play 5 a side soccer. I also do a couple of 5k runs every week if I have the time. I think it is very important to have hobbies outside of the PhD. It helps with the processing of thoughts and concepts related to the PhD you are studying. I spend a lot of time with my family and friends as well. They are a great support to date.

Thanks Calvin! How can our readers find out more about you and get in touch?

I have several articles published in the last year, with a couple of others under review. The first article ‘Recovery and Co-Production: Understanding the Diverging Paradigms and Potential Implications for Social Workers’ was published in the peer reviewed Irish Social Worker. The article is based on some of the initial findings from my PhD literature review. The article focuses on providing the reader with a greater understanding of the relationship between recovery and co-production in mental health services. This is available in hardcopy from the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW). Otherwise, it will be made available in 6 months’ time through Lenus, the Health Service Executive (HSE) open access.

The second article is co-authored with Dr Stan Houston. It is entitled ‘Exploring the Concept of Recovery in Irish Mental Health Services: A Case Study of Perspectives within an Inter-Professional Team’. This research was based on the findings of my Masters Dissertation which was also supervised by Dr Stan Houston. It explores whether the different disciplines within a multidisciplinary team could work together in implementing a biopsychosocial approach to recovery-orientated practice. This was published in the peer reviewed Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies.

The third article published is co-authored again with Dr. Stan Houston . It is entitled ‘Analysing a parent’s capacity to change: towards a model for child protection social workers’ in the Journal of Social Work Practice.
Focusing on the C-Change Model Approach, the article identifies the critical importance of not only cognitive-behavioural perspective when assessing parenting capacity, but a psychodynamic orientation. The latter section of the article provides a practical application for practitioners and students.

In terms of following my research journey I am available on several platforms:
1. Twitter
2. Trinity Profile
3. ResearchGate
4. Linkedin

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