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My PhD Journey

Our guest blogger today is Dr Kamelia Harris. Kamelia completed her PhD, funded by Mental Health Research UK, nine months ago. She tells her story of why she decided to do a PhD, how it helped her to develop as an independent researcher and her current research post.

I started my PhD journey at the University of Manchester five years ago in 2016. It was the first PhD funded by Mental Health Research UK (MHRUK) on the topic of resilience to suicidal thoughts and behaviours in people experiencing psychosis.

After completing my undergraduate degree in Psychology, I wanted to continue studying. A PhD felt like the next step to build on skills that I had developed during my undergraduate studies. After I completed my master’s degree, I was introduced to mental health research and started to work with people experiencing severe mental health problems, such as psychosis and suicidal thoughts and behaviours. It wasn’t until after I spent time working with people with severe mental health problems that I began to acknowledge and appreciate their impact on people’s lives.

I was aware that suicide deaths were a major concern in people with psychosis and schizophrenia, and understood the huge importance of reducing suicide death rates in that population. The focus of the PhD project on psychological resilience to suicidal experiences was completely new to me. It presented an opportunity to learn about a new concept and contribute to a relatively novel research topic. I particularly liked the emphasis on resilience and individual strengths as opposed to assessment of risk factors. I became intrigued by the concept of resilience, what it meant to people and how it could be developed to counter the impact of suicide-related experiences, both on the individual and the people around them. It is important to identify why and how people are resilient to the impact of suicide-precipitating experiences in order to inform effective suicide prevention interventions.

At the start of my PhD training, I was already aware of the impact that my previous training and experience in mental health research could have on the entire research process and the outcomes and conclusions of my thesis. I recognised that my training in conducting clinical assessments could provide valuable knowledge and facilitate data collection and analysis, but I also knew that I needed to remain open to alternative views and experiences that I might encounter. Recruiting participants into research studies is a challenging task. Despite this, I had the privilege of listening to people’s stories about suicide and mental health which often felt very emotional and poignant. I was humbled by their stories and admired the ways people managed to cope with and remain positive through difficult times. Speaking to people and listening to their stories gave me an insight and further understanding of their reality.

I found that resilience to suicidal thoughts and behaviours was not a personality trait but a complex process that took time and effort to develop and maintain. Mental health professionals, friends and significant others had important roles in supporting the development of resilience in people with suicidal experiences and psychosis. Ultimately, the lived experiences and understanding of psychosis and suicidality helped people to develop their own psychological resilience.

Completing this PhD helped me develop as an independent researcher. It also allowed me to gain insight into different psychological phenomena and develop new aspirations for the future, such as becoming a clinical psychologist. Importantly, completing this PhD made me appreciate and understand the profound impact of mental health difficulties on individuals’ lives and the people around them.

Since completing my PhD almost nine months ago, I have been employed as a trial manager on an NIHR-funded project called CARMS (Cognitive AppRoaches to coMbatting Suicidality). It is a collaboration between Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust and the Division of Psychology and Mental Health at the University of Manchester. CARMS is a randomised controlled trial which aims to find out whether a new psychological talking therapy can help reduce the level of suicidal thoughts in people experiencing psychosis. The project aligned with my research interests and experience and provided me with great opportunities to further my knowledge and skills. It also helped me develop many new ones, such as managing and training research assistants, ensuring treatment fidelity of trial therapists, and maintaining procedures to ensure adherence to trial protocols and administrative requirements.

Dr Kamelia Harris

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