Jenelle Clarke ~ The ‘So What?’ Factor of Value-Based Research in Mental Health

Recent conferences, Q&A of paper presentations, and even my NHS REC meeting have recently made me question the impact of social research within mental health and the ‘so what?’ factor of non-clinical studies.  We live and work in an evidence-based system whereby the expectation is that results are observable, measurable, quantifiable and replicable.  Hence studies that value the lived experience of participants, and look for meaning rather than outcomes, can struggle to maintain a sense of validity and reliability within mental health research.

However, there is much that value-based research can offer.  As Larsen (2007) points out, evidenced-based studies that examine therapeutic intervention has a propensity to create the “black box” effect.  The research may show whether outcomes have been achieved, but it cannot address exactly how they were met.  Furthermore, these studies cannot say why these outcomes matter and who they matter to.  This omission is fairly significant given the discrepancies between provider and patient expectations.  Gilburt, Rose and Slade (2008:8) argue that ‘[d]ivisions in the views of patients and professionals in terms of what variables and themes are important mean that the resulting studies may be a poor representation of the user perspective’. Furthermore, evidence-based research ignores personal agency and creativity as it requires that support be routinised according to a set of rational mechanisms that are universally applied (Haigh, 2005).  From this perspective, individuals need only respond to a prescribed agenda of recovery rather than find meaning from their own unique experiences (Rose, 1999).  Thus in order to avoid prioritising “what works” over “what matters” (Haigh, 2005), we need studies that emphasise participants’ experiences of mental health and the outcomes that are important to them.

But there is an even greater ‘so what?’ question that value-based researchers within mental health must address.  Even if we can convince our audiences that value-based research is meaningful and needed, what do we actually do with it?  The conclusion section of many journal articles advocating the prioritisation of participant experiences usually end by saying something along the lines of, “the evidence-base should be expanded”, and/or, “what matters to participants should inform clinical practice and guide policy making”.  Whilst I wholeheartedly agree, I also cannot help but notice that they do not offer any suggestions on how to do this.

Given the evidence-based system that relies on outcomes that are deemed to be achievable and measurable, the direct impact of value-based research is not always obvious.  However it is well worth considering the practical implications of how exploring participant perspectives and highlighting lived experiences can have a real-world impact within mental health.

Posted by:
Jenelle Clarke
ESRC PhD Student (Sociology)

Gilburt, H., Rose, D. and Slade, M. (2008) The Importance of relationships in mental health care: a qualitative study of service users’ experiences of psychiatric hospital admission in the UK. BMC Health Services Research 8(92).  Available online:

Haigh, R. (2005) The Trouble with Modernisation: we need better relationships, not policies and procedures. Mental Health Review Journal 10(3): pp.3-7.

Larsen, J.A. (2007) Understanding a Complex Intervention: Person-centred ethnography in early psychosis. Journal of Mental Health 16(3): pp.333-345.

Rose, N. (1999) Governing the Soul: the shaping of the private self. London: Free Association Books.


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