Meet the Qualitative Researcher: Sanchika Campbell

Sanchika is a PhD student at the Centre for Society and Mental Health at King’s College London. She is using a participatory research approach and mixed methods to understand the role of Christian faith and religious coping in dealing with adversity, and its relationship to mental health and help-seeking among members from Black Majority Churches in south-east London. She cares about creating spaces within research where members from marginalised communities can speak for themselves, and ways in which we can challenge traditional hierarchies of knowledge production in academia.

Sohail: Tell us a little bit about your research.

Sanchika: The role of faith in well-being project focuses on religion, religious coping and mental health, specifically among members from Black Majority Churches in south-east London. Through interviews, I wanted to explore the role of faith in how people coped with hard times in their lives, and how this affected their mental health and how they then seek help.

Over the years, many things have inspired my PhD project. I've always worked either in mental health research or in mental health services. When I was a healthcare assistant within acute psychiatric wards and forensic units, I started to understand mental health and the social suffering people were going through. The inequalities in services amongst racialised minorities were really stark. I then started as a research assistant in the South East London Community Health study (SELCoH) team. I remember being really excited to join the Health Inequalities Research Network (HERON) to address health inequalities through community engagement. During my masters I used secondary data from the SELCoH study to examine stressful life events and coping, with interesting findings around coping by praying and mental health, which I am exploring further in my PhD.

On a personal level, in terms of positionality, I am a south-Asian, migrant female, I’m Christian and have spent most of my life in south London. Conversations with my father-in-law, from the Caribbean, also motivated this project, because we used to speak about religion, Black mental health, and how faith is misinterpreted and misunderstood by mental health services. Interestingly, over the years, as religion has been declining nationally, there have been an increase in Black Majority Churches within south-east London, which also inspired the specific focus.

Sohail: So you chose this research area and you're thinking about positionality, it sounds like you might be a bit of an outsider in terms of working with Black majority churches. So how did you negotiate that and what resources do you draw on?

Sanchika: Right from the outset, using a participatory research approach was really important to me. I did not feel that there was real any value in doing this project if it wasn't going to create a space where the voices of members from Black majority churches could be drawn to the centre. I have the privilege of working with three incredible community peer researchers for over a year, and two amazing colleagues joined our project team too. We’ve had really profound discussions around faith and Black mental health. And our discussions have spanned across institutional racism within mental health services and the misunderstanding of cultural and religious expressions, particularly when they come from Black people, but also around how mental health awareness and support can be improved in churches. So there’s sort of two strands emerging, where we want to focus our attention on. At the moment, we’re bringing together discussions and projects findings for an engagement event, and coproducing key messages for local healthcare services and faith communities. 

Sohail: How have you found the process of doing participatory research so far?

Sanchika: So for me, one of the greatest learnings from this whole process is the importance of reciprocity, which my supervisor, Prof Stephani Hatch always encourages. We take a lot from participants and communities through the research process, but how can we give back in meaningful ways? I’ve also learnt that building trust and relationships in participatory research needs to centre cultural humility and academic humility. For me to actually learn and grow as a researcher, I need to unlearn in many ways. And that really means the knowledge from peer researchers is given value first and foremost. Participatory research is meaningful and important and hard! You’re never going to get it completely right, but it's an ongoing process of working together towards doing this work better.

As a researcher, I hope to challenge the power of dominant, Western explanations around religious coping and mental health, and to create spaces for marginalised communities to emerge with their own knowledge, ideas and practices around how we understand experiences. Western norms tend to dictate what is acceptable, and what people don’t understand can then be labelled negatively. This really impacts on people’s lives, their mental health, and where they may then seek help, if at all! I’m also learning that narratives on marginalised communities focus on victimhood rather than acknowledging resistance, community, joy, achievement and cultural richness.

Sohail: Last question. What’s your top tip for someone who’s getting into participatory research?

Sanchika: I think in participatory research or research generally actually, you need to ground yourself in the fact that you're a human being before you’re a researcher. So think about the human connection you have to the people or the communities that you're going to work with. I think we often wear masks as researchers that situate us further on the outside, as if we don’t go through our own mental health struggles. I think bringing our vulnerabilities, our authentic selves and humility to the process can really help to build trust. I’m still learning all this, but for example, in dialogues with co-researchers, asking them how do you feel about engaging with this work? Do you feel you can freely express what you wish here? Am I really understanding what you're saying? How can we do things better? So I think being transparent, humble and human as much as possible can take down some of the barriers that come with being researchers within institutions of power and privilege.