I’ve long wondered what the public’s view of university-based researchers is really like.
As a life-long researcher, most recently devoted to suicide prevention, it has historically been a hard line to walk in terms of breaking down stereotypes of scientists in lab coats merely wanting to study the community (say as opposed to collaborating with the community).
Getting to take part in the recent city-wide mental health and suicide prevention awareness efforts have, in a way, flipped the script for me.
I now want to share my view from the Ivory Tower…coming down from the solitude of university research to share a few lessons and experiences, hopefully to help others to contribute to an ongoing positive conversation in Norfolk and greater Hampton Roads.
I’ve written two pieces for AltDaily previously surrounding suicide prevention: one trying to help contextualize risk and resilience in Norfolk and the other to highlight potential for prevention. These pieces really illustrate the first and perhaps strongest lesson I can impart from the Ivory Tower: There is tremendous potential value in actually sharing what you know. Call it public health education, community service, op-eds, or any other name, the point here is scholars like myself all too often stop at the point of executing our research and, at best, presenting it at academic conferences or publishing it in scientific journals. We fall short in our imperative to share what we know in more lay friendly public forums for the betterment of society. It’s easy to sit in our labs, behind our computers, or in the classroom. It’s more challenging to step beyond one’s comfort zone to make a next-level immediate contribution to our community.
I’m happy (and quite frankly flattered) that, since joining the Old Dominion University faculty at the end of 2015, I have been provided more opportunities to engage with the community than I can possibly capitalize on. Not the least of these has been participating in this city-wide steering committee – a group of intrinsically devoted individuals moving together for the public good – and it’s brought a whole new avenue to my work as a social scientist, public health educator, and suicide prevention researcher. Keep your eyes peeled: Later this month I’ll be chatting with the community again as part of ODU Science Pubs, in support of the city-wide effort on mentally health Norfolk month – this time about military mental health.
Another lesson from the Ivory Tower: We scientists are probably not alone. It’s very (and I do mean very) easy to feel isolated in conducting your research as an academic. You may be the only person addressing an important topic in an entire institution. Finding collaborators nearby can really be difficult, especially if you’ve only been trained to think or look in certain places (like your university or medical agencies). The city-wide task force I joined at Jesse Scaccia’s invitation in late spring or early summer was a game changer for me – I’ve always been oriented toward working with agencies beyond academia. Prior to coming to ODU I had collaborated with courts, criminal justice, and community health providers.
However, to sit around a table with members of the Norfolk school board, staff from the department of public health, leaders in the faith community, local foundation leaders, and an array of others was truly eye opening. In my interest and passion for suicide prevention, here in Norfolk, I am not alone. That’s powerful. That’s a game changer.
A final lesson from the Ivory Tower: The tower exists only in your head. ODU is merely one partner at the table of an inter-organizational collaboration. This got me reflecting on my prior positions, research and other work. The best research – nay, the best scholarship – is done on the ground. Grass roots. Community-engaged. Working with stakeholders of all types who have insight to offer. Here, I fear I may be saying what most already know. Indeed, community-engaged and participatory research represents its own field of study, approach to research, and federally-defined fundable topic. Better late than never!
Over the last 1.5 years I have done more meaningful community-engaged research and service (not just in suicide prevention) than the rest of my career combined – and it’s been fruitful in every regard: research productivity, community connectedness, and contributing to critical community missions to make a difference. Changing my approach to a true sense of community-engagement has been a win all the around. And one that I hope can make even a small contribution to a long-lasting impact on the mental health and suicide prevention in Hampton Roads.
For more on Mentally Healthy Norfolk Month, please go here.
And please take a few moments with the Talk About it Norfolk video series.