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Looking back and looking forwards at McPin

Vanessa Pinfold

2020. The year that was – unexpected.

Out of a crisis some positives emerge, but mostly this year has been a seismic shock and the emergence of a “new normal” still feels a long way off. At McPin, we have tried to keep our positivity going by finding new ways to connect, by supporting our colleagues and those in our wider networks and constantly asking ourselves what next? How we can learn from others, change our organisation and in some small way meaningfully contribute through the Covid-19 pandemic?

After half a decade of mental health rising up the government agenda and seeping into national conversation, this was the year that no one could look away. Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the nation’s mental as well as physical health, and the aftereffects will be felt long after the vaccine is rolled out. Health and social care services continue to grapple with increased demand for mental health support and are still working out new ways of delivering core services.

The mental health impact of the pandemic, including on people with existing conditions, is also on the scientific research agenda. In fact, the amount of Covid-related research was so great that we had to rethink the way we communicated with our networks about involvement opportunities. We have inserted a trigger warning into our bulletins to alert those who are experiencing Covid-19 overload. We have also been vocal about our concerns that the pace of new research risks overlooking the important principle ‘nothing about us without us’. Involving experts by experience in designing research studies is as important now as it has ever been.

Covid research

We have been involved in lots of plans for new Covid-related mental health research, and two specific studies. The first was developing a peer-to-peer support programme with young people with Oxford University and the second was with Cambridge University’s THIS Institute, delivering an interview study using peer research methods to understand access to secondary mental health services. The latter will continue next year, exploring what “good” looks like for remote access care beyond the pandemic. We have some experience of this through our PARTNERS2 research project, which had to move therapeutic support to phone and online platforms. The team have written about this as well as the challenges of collecting research data remotely. We are keen to look at issues around digital exclusion and blended support (remote access and face to face contact) so do get in touch if this interests you too.

Here are a few of our highlights this year:

In 2020 our team grew so we had to recruit, induct, and train new staff via Zoom. Not meeting face to face is a new workplace experience. Supporting the wellbeing of all our staff virtually has also challenged us – but we are committed to continuing to develop. We have done a lot of work on racism, inclusion and diversity internally and more will follow. We are currently recruiting so please visit our vacancies page if you are interested in working with us or know others who might.

Endings and beginnings

We completed My Story, Our Future, a project about living with psychosis using a storytelling approach – and launched some resources for both practitioners and people using services. This work was delivered by survivor researchers and you can read about Gary’s experience in one of our 38 blogs from the year. We also supported the NEON project and the production of a resource for people thinking of talking to others about their mental health experiences. We would love to do more storytelling work so do get in touch if you are interested. Our evaluation of Women Side by Side, a women-led peer support programme for women who are at risk of, or who experience ‘multiple disadvantage’, also came to an end. You can read about our findings and learning from the project here.

We have a team working with the NIHR School of Public Health Research. To engage people across England, they created the #Iampublicmentalhealth hashtag and accompanying website, which includes Covid Life, a collection of unique moments documenting experiences through the creative arts. Do take a look, there are poems, photos and films. In 2021, we are planning a Photovoice project to explore structural inequalities by talking to people in four areas in England.

A significant piece of work this year has been our partnership with Black Thrive, working on their employment programme for Black people with long term conditions in Lambeth. We have learnt a lot and many staff have been involved in a rapid literature review, a community-led interview study and developmental evaluation of a system change programme. With partners TSIP, the report asking what it will take for Black people in Lambeth to recover financially, physically, emotionally and socially from the pandemic is our first output.

The mental health research sector is doing rapid work thinking about priorities, and how we can continue to make progress with issues that felt very pressing before Covid as well as the new challenges the pandemic has brought. McPin were involved in a Covid roadmap for mental health science published by Lancet Psychiatry and we have reflected on the importance of research leadership, including among funders from the charity sector. The International Alliance of Mental Health Research funders has scoped out spending across the globe on mental health research highlighting inequities. It goes without saying there is much to do.

More change to come

At McPin, we are looking to 2021 and taking forward our work on young people’s mental health, inequalities and employment as well as restarting projects that were paused during lockdown. We will also be doing more work on lived experience expertise, and how people use their varied experiences in their roles, as illustrated by a recent blog post from Rachel.

We will be focusing both internally and externally on anti-racism, inequalities and diversity in all our work. Peer research and PPI (public and patient involvement) can and must do more to address systemic problems in mental health care and mental health research. Drawing on the expertise of everyone at McPin – our newly expanded group of Trustees, our staff, members of our Lived Experience Advisory Panels, project groups and Young People’s Network – 2021 will be a year of change for us as we move towards our 10-year anniversary.

Thank you to everyone for your support, always but particularly through the last few months. We are committed to doing practical research that can make a difference, and championing expertise from experience loudly and passionately. Best wishes from all of us for the festive season and into the New Year.


Vanessa Pinfold is the co-founder and Research Director of McPin.