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Engaging people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

Dr Thanos Verousis from the School of Management reflects on his engagement project working with volunteers with ADHD and the Bristol Adult ADHD Support Group.

The purpose of this project was twofold; to enable both people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the charities that provide ADHD support to voice their experiences regarding how ADHD may potentially be linked with certain financial risk-taking activities, and to provide a platform at the University to facilitate the development of a multidisciplinary project on ADHD and risk aversion.

As a quantitative researcher, this engagement project was my first experience of more qualitative approaches. To gather experiences for the potential project on ADHD and risk-aversion, I met with ten attendees of the Bristol ADHD Support Group. I also conducted four one-to-one, in-depth interviews with people who hadn’t been at the meeting but who had responded to an advert on the Group’s website for project participants.

Following this engagement activity, I’m now writing up an external funding proposal for The Leverhulme Trust on the extent of possible correlation between ADHD and financial activities. I’m also now a member of the University’s newly-established Neuroeconomics Research Group which is an obvious outlet for this type of research.

What I gained from the experience

The project increased my understanding of conducting qualitative research, its pitfalls and strengths but more importantly, it led me to reconsider my approach to conducting research into mental health issues. Conducting field research with individuals has allowed me to gain valuable experience in:

  • approaching stakeholder groups, especially the importance of establishing the objectives of any project with participants in advance
  • interviewing individuals
  • considering the ethical implications of my research, especially thinking about the language that should be used (avoiding terming those with ADHD as 'sufferers' of ADHD) and being clear on how the outputs of research will be used

One of the main objectives of the project was to use its outcomes as a platform to inform my future research in the field and this has certainly been the case. During the course of the project, I’ve networked with researchers in the Department of Psychology and have subsequently become a member of the Neuroeconomics Research Group. By learning more through my engagement with the Support Group and with those with ADHD, I’ve been able to establish a clear need for a more structured and systematic approach to the study of mental health disorders and any concomitant individual risk-taking behaviour.

I found that in one-to-one interview situations, participants were already clear on the objectives of my research and that my questions were anticipated.

What my partners gained

The Support Group welcomed the opportunity the project offered to raise awareness of the potential financial risks associated with ADHD and to share their own experiences of the issues under investigation. I’ll be sharing the initial outcomes of the project with the Bristol ADHD Support Group leader (ensuring that what data is shared is anonymous), to inform their own thinking in this field.

Ultimately, it’s hoped that the project will lead to research that will be of direct benefit to those with ADHD, supporting them to make more informed financial decisions. The research should empower those involved in it through actively listening to their experiences.

I found people willing to share their experiences of ADHD and financial behaviour. For example, I received an email from a member of the public from Leeds who had seen the call for participants on the Bristol Support Group’s website and who wanted to share his experiences of ADHD with me.

What I'd do differently

Early in the project I realised that, due to my inexperience in qualitative research, I’d made a couple of mistakes in relation to ethical considerations:

  • given that the project aimed to investigate the 'risk-taking behaviour' of any individuals with ADHD, it implied that participants were engaged in risk-taking activity, a point that led to some friction at the Support Group meeting
  • initially, I’d used the term 'ADHD sufferer', which interview participants pointed out has negative connotations

The two issues could have been avoided if I’d met with the Group leader in advance to identify any issues or language that might distance participants from collaborating with me.

In the group meeting, I noted that individuals were more concerned with me as a researcher rather than with the project itself, which wasn’t the case with one-to-one meetings where people were more comfortable to talk about personal experiences.

My tips for other researchers

Early in my project I faced difficulties in approaching people as they feared that my research might stigmatise their mental health conditions further. It’s therefore essential to emphasise the empowering nature of engaged research rather than treating people as part of a clinical process.

Researchers should be aware of the risks associated with group dynamics; members tend to behave differently when faced with a question as part of a group compared to when they are interviewed one-to-one, and may perceive the researcher as an 'outsider'. It’s useful to work with the Group Leader in advance of a meeting to identify any sensitive issues or topics and to agree on the best approach.

I benefited from having a 'critical friend'. By working with another researcher experienced in qualitative approaches (Dr Richard Fairchild) he was able to highlight several issues regarding the design and implementation of my project. For example, both Richard and I agreed that one-to-one interviews were more appropriate as a research technique due to tensions arising from group dynamics.

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If you want to discuss how you might engage publics in or with your research, the Public Engagement Unit can help.