Life as a graduate researcher: Helena Roennfeldt


Helena Roennfeldt’s lived experience of the mental health system is informing her PhD research. She is making space for people to talk about their own mental health crises, so these insights can shape new solutions.

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Meet the researcher

Tell us about yourself and why you decided to do a PhD at the University of Melbourne

I grew up in Queensland as the youngest of nine children. Neither of my parents finished high school, and we grew up in poverty. When I was 14, I was placed involuntarily in an adolescent psychiatric facility. I also spent time in adult facilities, leaving for the last time at the age of 20.

My schooling was interrupted, so I went back to school and completed year 11 and year 12 in one year. I then completed a Bachelor of Arts in psychology. Being exposed to the mental health system had left me feeling dissatisfied. I wanted to work in community mental health to improve the system.

I questioned whether I had enough resilience to complete a PhD. In the meantime, I completed four masters degrees, in the areas of: social work, mental health, forensic mental health and suicidality.

A few factors led me to the University of Melbourne for my PhD. The University has a very strong cohort of consumer academics (people with lived experience of the mental health system) – more than any other university in Australia. They have financially invested in consumer perspectives. The University’s Centre for Mental Health Nursing and the work of Cath Roper and Associate Professor Bridget Hamilton was a key factor too. I was interested in the Peers in Emergency Department project, as I’m very passionate about the potential for peer work to help people find healing and hope. It makes a difference to have the support of someone who’s been through the system.

Describe your PhD research and what you are hoping to discover.

My PhD is on people’s first-person account of their mental health crisis and how they’ve accessed crisis services. This could be the Emergency Department (ED), crisis phone lines, or an alternative to ED. I’m hoping to draw out the diversity and complexity but also find common threads of people’s experiences. There hasn’t been much research into first-hand experiences of crisis. People haven’t been able to describe what was and was not helpful, to inform solutions.

We have jumped to the point of trying to find alternative solutions to ED. But I want to take a step back and learn what it’s like to be at that breaking point. What would you like other people to know about that experience? What would have been helpful for you? People want their experiences to be heard – I have no shortage of participants for my research.

How does your own lived experience of the mental health system add value to your PhD project?

It helped shape the topic. I had my own crisis experience that left me feeling like I was different from other people. I want to make sure the research I do is really ethical and doesn’t try and decontextualise what the experience meant for the research participants. I want to hear what is important for them. I’ve had to ensure I reflect on my own experience, so that it doesn’t bias how I hear others.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your graduate research experience?

Being able to use the lived experience lens to create research that is meaningful and contribute to social change.

It is also rewarding to hear what others are doing. I love being inspired by their work.

What are the biggest challenges of your graduate research experience?

I feel like I’m always stepping into the unknown. It can be daunting having to reach out and ask for help.

Finding a balance can be a challenge. Life can feel like it’s all serious work, with no time for fun and frivolity. It’s hard to balance paid work too.

Where are you hoping your PhD will take you, in terms of your career aspirations?

I would like to work at the coalface, with people in marginalised communities, rather than become an academic.

Also, I have discovered how much I enjoy writing. I would like to investigate the different ways we can translate research to make knowledge more accessible. I am particularly interested in the way we can use creative work, such as art and music, to make research more visible.

What advice would you give to people with lived experience of the mental health system who are considering undertaking their PhD?

Value the lived experience lens. It is incredibly valid and important. Don’t discount your experience – use it as a form of knowledge to inform your research.

First published on 16 February 2022.

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