By Helen Beckett, Debra Allnock and Camille Warrington
The importance of young people’s involvement in research is increasingly recognised in relation to many areas of their lives. However, there is still hesitance around involving them in research on sexual abuse.
This is particularly true of those who are known to have experienced such abuse, who are often considered by ethics boards or gatekeepers to be ‘too vulnerable’ to involve in such sensitive research’.
However, our experience shows that engagement in research, when done well, can be a positive experience for young people. Young people who have taken part in projects like Making Justice Work and Making Noise have told us they particularly value:
- Being given the time and space to share their views and experiences
- Realising they are not alone in their experiences
- Being able to contribute to improving things for other children and young people
- Being able to create something positive out of something negative.
Young people who have experienced sexual abuse have a unique and critically important perspective to share, that greatly enhances our understanding of their experiences and their needs. Their contributions to our current ESRC and NSPCC funded research project are no exception.
‘Learning from the Experts’ is a participatory research study focused on the mental health and wellbeing needs of those who experience sexual abuse in adolescence. We know that sexual abuse affects mental health and wellbeing, but we need to understand more about the nature of these impacts and the needs and wishes of those experiencing them. Our study seeks to address this gap, by creating safe and meaningful opportunities for young people who have experienced sexual abuse in adolescence to share their views.
Our approach to research is ‘trauma-informed’, keeping young people’s mental health and wellbeing at the centre of our thinking. For us, this means acknowledging the potential presence and impact of trauma, and working with this rather than seeing it as a reason to exclude young people from our research.
We actively seek to minimise the potential of our actions causing participants distress through investing in our training and understanding, and keeping their needs at the centre of our research. This means ensuring that we are open and transparent with participants about what we are asking them to do and being clear on how we use their information. It also means maximising their opportunities for choice and control around when and where we meet, how long we meet for, what they want to share and how they want to do this (for example, talking, writing or drawing) and keeping participant welfare at the heart of our processes. Furthermore, we approach participants through agencies who can identify any engagement needs, and provide appropriate support for the young people taking part.
‘Learning from the Experts’ involves creative workshops which use scenarios to allow participants to explore the mental health and wellbeing needs of a hypothetical young person who has experienced sexual abuse. Workshops are still ongoing, but twenty young people have taken part so far and their contributions have been incredibly insightful, offering additional and at times new or contradictory perspectives to the topic. These include learning about the nature of the mental health and wellbeing impacts of an experience of sexual abuse; the impacts of other people’s responses to such abuse; perspectives on culpability and blame; and the use of language around ‘resilience’ and ‘recovery’.
The new insights emerging from our research reinforce the importance of hearing directly from children and young people, rather than relying solely on the views of carers or professionals or the retrospective accounts of adult survivors of abuse.
It is not that these other perspectives are unimportant; but rather that they are not the whole picture. A person’s reflections on life experiences change with time and distance, and this is also true of their experiences of sexual abuse or mental health. Therefore, if our study is to truly help young people in the future, the responses we gather must feel relevant to where they are at that point in time. This means we need to begin from their understanding of the world, rather than only through an ‘adult-informed’ lens.
We hope that the findings of our study will equip us to do this better and place the critical voices of young people at the centre of debates around how best to respond to the mental health and wellbeing impacts of sexual abuse.
Learning from the Experts is being run by three researchers from ‘The International Centre: Researching child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking’ at the University of Bedfordshire.
Dr Helen Beckett is Director of the Centre and a Reader in Child Protection and Children’s Rights. She has over 20 years’ experience of undertaking social research on children and young people’s issues, and holds particular expertise in sexual violence and abuse, and the ethics of engaging vulnerable populations in research. You can follow Helen on Twitter at @helenlbecket
Dr Debra Allnock is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre. She has worked in the field of child protection and safeguarding for the last 20 years and has expertise in sexual violence and abuse, service provision for children and young people and sexual abuse disclosure. You can follow the project on Twitter at @uniofbedsCSE
Dr Camille Warrington is a Senior Research Fellow and Participation Lead for the Centre. She has over 20 years’ experience as both a youth work practitioner and applied researcher, and holds particular expertise in children and young people’s participation and ethical and creative means of supporting this. You can follow Camille on Twitter at @CamilleLW
This year we are using the #ESRCBetterLives hashtag to highlight outstanding social science research and show how social science is relevant to everyone. Our Better Lives theme for May is ‘mental health’. Watch out for our tweets and tell us about research that has inspired you!