How co-production with young people, and involving them from the beginning, can widen the research agenda and influence the research questions.
By Dr Christina McMellon, Research Associate at the University of Glasgow.
The Transdisciplinary Research for the Improvement of Youth Mental Public Health (TRIUMPH) Network was one of eight Mental Health Networks established by UK Research and Innovation. Led by the University of Glasgow, it ran for four years and four months, ending in April 2022.
The focus of the network was on finding new ways to improve young people’s mental health and wellbeing, especially among vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. We wanted to make sure that young people were a meaningful part of that conversation, so we needed to find ways to get them involved.
Involving young people’s voices
We set up the TRIUMPH Youth Advisory Group, made up of 16 young people aged 16 to 24. The group included four young people from each of the four nations of the UK, supported by four partner organisations. These partners helped us recruit members and supported them to take part in our activities.
Two were public involvement organisations based in Wales (ALPHA) and Scotland (Young Edinburgh Action), one was an organisation for LGBTQ+ young people in England (Free2B Alliance), and one for care-experienced, young people in Northern Ireland (VOYPIC). We wanted to make sure that the advisory group represented the experiences of those at risk of poor mental health and wellbeing, where the need for support is greatest.
This advisory group was central to our youth involvement strategy and the strategic development of the network. They also helped bring other young people into the conversation and our activities.
These activities included priority-setting workshops to determine the research focus of the network and a national event attended by 60 young mental health researchers and activists.
Activities we ran
Our youth advisors co-designed, facilitated and presented at partnership agenda-setting workshops, and analysed what came out of these, to help determine priority areas for future research into youth mental health.
We ran a funding opportunity with parallel assessment panels for adults and young people. The youth advisors helped to design the application form, including a young person-friendly summary that they assessed.
What was wonderful was that broadly the two panels agreed which proposals they thought were successful. We had a rule that if young people were saying “this is not something that we think should be funded”, then it would not be funded.
The youth advisors and TRIUMPH staff co-produced a series of webinars addressing issues related to co-producing research with young people that attracted over 120 participants.
The youth advisors co-produced and co-facilitated a two-day event called TRIUMPH Fest. Attended by over 60 young people and over 60 researchers, practitioners and policymakers, it celebrated young people’s contribution to mental health research.
We also provided funding to support our youth advisors to design their own project, in a ‘beyond co-production’ approach. The youth advisory group chose to research young people’s experiences of feeling understood by adults who support them.
Five young people were employed by University of Glasgow as peer researchers. This challenged traditional academic power dynamics by providing space for the research to be led by young people, supported by academic staff.
The impact of youth involvement
Changed research culture
At the beginning our researchers were committed to involving young people because we’d written this into the proposal, but maybe weren’t quite seeing the impact that it would have. Whereas by the end of the process, it was great to see everybody thinking ‘how do we involve our youth advisors?’. They became a part of the team.
Widened our research agenda
It widened our research to bigger topics which do not necessarily fit under a health agenda, like young people feeling understood. If young people do not feel understood then they won’t seek help, which is a huge finding.
It shows how involving young people right from the beginning impacts on the knowledge that we generate. It really does impact on the questions that we ask, and therefore the answers that we get.
Upskilled and supported the youth advisors
The youth advisors developed skills through doing their own pieces of research, including learning about the relevant ethical research processes. They learned help-seeking behaviours around mental health and built up their own personal coping mechanisms for managing their mental health.
They have since made choices they wouldn’t have made if they hadn’t been involved in the advisory group. They’ve used the experience to get other jobs. They’re going out in the world with an understanding of public health, and using that in their lives and their conversations with other people.
Personal impact of the experience
I absolutely loved it. I’m so proud of the Youth Advisory Group. This is the first group of young people I’ve worked with for such a long period of time, over the full four years, and the project has been well-funded and well-resourced. The difference that those two things make is extraordinary.
What has stood out for me is just how many other researchers wanted to consult with our Youth Advisory Group on different pieces of work.
We’ve done a lot of thinking with young people about how to do co-production well. It’s highlighted how academic systems and structures aren’t always set up particularly well for this level of youth involvement.
It’s difficult to pay young people in anything other than gift vouchers. We need to be resourcing youth involvement in research which includes paying young people and treating them in the same way that we would treat our staff, so they feel valued.
Be honest about the limitations of what you can do together
Have really honest conversations about what you can and cannot do. It’s very easy to say that we work in equal partnership and that things are youth-led. But in reality, there are some power differentials that are built into the funding that we have.
Put time into building relationships
Be prepared to talk to young people about their accessibility needs, how to involve them in research processes and how they can manage the work around their lives. Have time built into grants that is more flexible, knowing that the stronger the relationships, the more effective the work together is going to be.
Give choices, options and flexibility
One of the things that has been hardest for us is working with a wide group of young people who have diverse lives and experiences. We have had to constantly consider how we say things to make sure everyone understands.
Last updated: 21 November 2023