Public speaking has evoked dramatic reactions in me. Shaking, hyperventilating and most recently, breaking out into red patches. I become a parody of stage fright. Thus, when abstracts for the 2017 Primary Care Mental Health Research Conference were requested I enthusiastically submitted one for a poster. Imagine my surprise when I was generously upgraded to an oral presentation.
This conference is held annually, hosted this year by the University of Keele. Keele was a cosy accumulation of boxy homes and meadows, classic English countryside, with this university randomly fitted in. Lonely, windy but serene nonetheless. A modest hundred highly experienced clinicians, researchers and students were in attendance to foster the progress of junior researchers and deliberate over this year’s theme, “Ethics- a friend of research”.
Key note speakers gave introductory talks on the importance of ethics in preventing exploitation, fraud and plagiarism and its role in balancing the power dynamic between a researcher and participant. Most people, myself included, associate ethics with a tedious anticlimax that acts as a barrier to conducting fruitful clinical and research work but history shows that troubling results ensue in its the absence.
This was evidenced in the infamous Tuskegee study of 1932, to monitor the effects of untreated syphilis in African Americans. U.S government sponsored researchers examined and monitored participants without divulging the study’s nature and that they could withdraw. When penicillin was found to be effective in treating syphilis participants were not informed or treated, to maintain the so-called integrity of the trial. This was deemed “ethically unjustified” and the study was shut down by November 1972. However, the miscarriage of human rights had been committed and is still a reminder of the role of ethics in maintaining those rights.
Follow up speakers went on to discuss the influence of culture in ethical practice, ethics in developing countries, the ethical obligation of clinicians to be involved in research and motivation determining whether participation is ethical – all in depth presentations with philosophical connotations. We eventually drifted on to other matters: depression and anxiety in rheumatoid arthritis, exploring how old adults self manage distress, diagnosis of schizophrenia in early intervention services, collaborative care and behavioural activation for major depression and behavioural activation versus cognitive behavioural therapy- a plethora of psychological topics.
Then my solo presentation came along. As it got closer to 2:30pm I could feel my rationality deteriorate and I broke out into red patches all over. My internal self screamed while my outside smiled. When I finally stood at the podium, ready to present, I mentally blacked out. This is quite common, this out of body experience of mine. I’ll be a frantic mess and suddenly my body will swoop in and rescue my brain, autopiloting itself, doing all the talking as if functioning on working memory. Coursing on an adrenaline rush, I cannot say how I motivated myself to speak and the audience to listen.
What I can tell you is that my presentation was based on a portion of my MPhil research. Current literature shows language and cultural adaptation impact responses on health measures and as the majority of effective measures were developed within European countries in English, standardised among Caucasian populations, ethnic minority groups disadvantaged when assessed. Therefore, I proposed developing guidelines for adapting any existing measure for a target population and then assessing its understanding and acceptability within the population.
It was received positively by attendees as cross-cultural research has lifted off and clinical settings in the UK have expressed a demand for health measures that diagnose groups such as South Asians, Afro-Caribbeans and Europeans. I’ll admit I felt the fear drain away and the enthusiasm bubble when I saw the spark in the audiences’ eyes and was able to engage in active discourse, rapid firing answers to their questions. My body is far more charismatic than my mind – I should let it do all the talking.
And then the true kicker. After a colleague of mine took the win for Manchester with ‘Best Poster’, out of the blue I was awarded ‘Best Presentation’ with an overwhelming consensus stating that, despite this being my first presentation at a conference I was a “born presenter”. I guess I did a good job at hiding my patchy red skin.