7th February 2023 Blog

Equitable engagement: how I amplified the voices of under-heard parents

Racial equity •

If support services routinely fail to reach ethnically diverse parents, can they be classed as universal? Inclusion practitioner Aleem Nisar shares his insights about how he connected with diverse caregivers and what he learned from them.

Aleem Nisar

In 2022, I contributed to the service review of a national mental health charity which sought participation from multicultural parents and carers. I recruited 31 caregivers to learn about their experiences supporting the wellbeing of their children and young people.

Engaging any parents for this type of inquiry can be difficult. Hearing diverse voices can be even more challenging.

When participation is sought, it might be that certain caregivers are acting with agency and choosing not to engage. Alternatively, some parents might be happy to provide their opinions, but need to be asked in different ways.

Finding the connectors

My approach was to find the people who were already connected with a range of people; other practitioners who work with multicultural parents and carers, and had established relationships of trust.

Organisations seeking to improve need to know how potential users experience their services. Participatory research can shape future services. Yet there are established difficulties in hearing people’s views equitably. If diverse engagement is not achieved, ‘universal’ services are in danger of being designed to serve only a narrow range of people.

My work involved recruiting and engaging caregivers. They completed surveys, I ran focus groups, conducted semi-structured interviews and facilitated lively group discussions. This helped me to gain first-hand quantitative & qualitative data.

[Professionals] might be wary of being accused of imposing ‘Western’ values over other, socially constructed norms.

What I found

  • Taboos remain

Specific sensitivities definitely exist within many diverse communities. For many parents and carers, talking about mental health problems with their friends and family remains extremely stigmatic. This might be in contrast with the wider population where progress has been made in raising awareness that wellbeing issues exist and are discussable.

Professionals hoping to connect inclusively will be aware that different cultures have different perspectives. They might therefore be wary of being accused of imposing ‘Western’ values over other, socially constructed norms. Yet, certain views around mental health necessitate challenging and practitioners need to be confident when they do this, whilst ensuring that they work with reflexivity.

  • And yet parents do want to talk – but they have to be asked in the right way

Many ethnically diverse caregivers have had direct, or close, experiences of mental health and emotional wellbeing problems amongst their young people. I found that this meant parents and carers did want to discuss these issues with others, share their experiences and learn about how to access support.

If spaces that caregivers experience as ‘safe’ can be created, skilled facilitation can allow impactful information to be shared both ways.

A teacher who worked with diverse parents told me, “Parents are terrified of social services. So even if there is a mental health issue, they are scared of what social services might do”.

  • Trust is a large problem

Multicultural parents and carers do not trust statutory and voluntary services. Although service providers acknowledge this, it can be disquieting to hear these views repeated so regularly.

A teacher who worked with diverse parents told me, “Parents are terrified of social services. So even if there is a mental health issue, they are scared of what social services might do”.

“They take the child off you”, one parent told me when I asked about her attitude to support services.

Another parent declared “if we call for help we will get the least priority compared to white people”.

The result of this deeply rooted mistrust, is that ethnically diverse parents are predisposed not to engage with services that are ostensibly intended to support them.

The way I overcame this was by connecting to caregivers via organisations that they already interacted with.

In future, work roles exist for schools, adult learning centres, sports clubs and places of worship. Knowledgeable practitioners already work with under-represented people. Harnessing their expertise offers solutions to the challenging problem of equitable engagement.

  • Representation matters

Ethnically diverse people realise that their perspectives about mental health, (influenced by their specific communities), may contrast with the mores of the wider population. Parents and carers are sensitive to these cultural differences.

When talking to diverse caregivers about mental health, being non-white myself helped. My positionality was advantaged by a shared sense of otherness.

Bridging the divide

Under-represented parent voices can be heard but, at every level, engagement needs to be appropriate. Learning how to do this can help to bridge the divide between a national organisation and local people.

Aleem Nisar is an inclusion practitioner and consultant. He works in education, for mental health services and contributes to academic research.